Pittsburgh — The great hulking steel mills in western Pennsylvania are often eerily still these days - no rush of workers going in and out, no plumes of smoke. But unemployment offices are much busier.
So as the Democratic presidential hopefuls stump this part of the state looking for votes for tomorrow's primary, they speak of revitalizing Keystone industries such as steel, autos, and machine tools. They talk of helping the unemployed and of changing the tax structure to encourage industries to remain in the United States rather than fleeing abroad.
But in an area that the current recovery seems to have passed over, the consensus among Democrats appears to be a desire to get President Reagan and his economic policies out of Washington.
''I haven't met an unemployed person yet who loves Ronald Reagan,'' says Paul Lodico, an out-of-work union organizer in McKeesport.
During the 1980 election, Democratic Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh and mill towns such as McKeesport, Braddock, and Homestead, defected to the GOP and Mr. Reagan. But it appears the blue-collar labor vote has come back to the fold.
''I would take any of the three (Democratic presidential candidates) over Reagan,'' says a laid-off steel worker in Pittsburgh's South Side. ''There's been a lot of suffering here.''
Unemployment in Pittsburgh is several percentage points higher than the national average, with even higher pockets in nearby mill towns. In almost any town outside this city, businesses are boarded up on main streets.
''Unemployment is primarily the big issue,'' says Perry Wright, a former union construction worker who is attending community college through a special program for displaced workers. ''Do you think all these people work at nighttime?'' he asks, pointing to the many people sitting in a downtown Pittsburgh park in the middle of the afternoon.
Besides unemployment issues and industrial policy, voters here are also concerned about environmental problems such as smokestack emissions and toxic-waste disposal.
At a glance, western Pennsylvania seems well suited for Walter Mondale, who has done well in areas of high unemployment, strong union membership, and among ethnic voters. The Rev. Jesse Jackson is expected to do better in the eastern part of the state, where blacks are concentrated. Gary Hart has worked hard at courting the independent labor rank and file, and he has the endorsement of some of the maverick Democrats here, such as County Commissioner Pete Flaherty.
''It will be very tough,'' says Robert Rosen, a national staffer for Senator Hart. ''Mondale has a very good machine,'' with the support of organized labor and such groups as the National Organization for Women.
Eva F. Terryi from Masontown, south of Pittsburgh, is a Jackson supporter, despite being a registered Republican. She says that ''for people who never had a political thought in their life, Jesse has given them a reason to come out. Our goal is for blacks to become part of the political process.''
Another factor in the election is a growing white-collar service sector in downtown Pittsburgh that has its own concerns, says Michael Weber, an urban historian at Carnegie Mellon University. To these people, inflation has been an important issue.
And the threat of losing corporate headquarters to other parts of the country also looms. The recent sale of Gulf Oil Corporation to Standard Oil Company of California has implications for other businesses in the area. Pittsburgh, is the third-largest corporate headquarters in the US, is home to such firms as Westinghouse and Rockwell International. But much of these companies' production is done elsewhere, Mr. Weber says.
Despite candidates assertions that America's industries can become revitalized and competitive, few people believe that the mills will be restored to full capacity.
''I don't think even steelworkers any longer think that will be true,'' says Weber. ''They hope to go back to work, but even the most optimistic don't think it will return to the level of 10 years ago. They see the blast furnaces being dismantled.''
It's ''probably true'' that Hart's stand against protectionist policies will hurt him among union workers, admits supporter Flaherty, a former Pittsburgh mayor. But he says that's because many workers have not heard other solutions to the steel industry's woes. ''I have favored protectionism, because there were no other alternatives in the short range. But I'd like to see the development of broader, long-range policies.''
Mr. Mondale's union endorsement will carry weight with union workers, but observers point to the independence of workers here. Mr. Wright is undecided who he'll vote for tomorrow, but he leans toward Mr. Jackson. He says Mondale is too much like Jimmy Carter.