Philadelphia — The third man in the Democratic Party contest for the presidential nomination is running with new vigor in some white communities in Pennsylvania, say optimistic supporters in the state.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, running a distant third behind front-runner Walter Mondale and Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, will surprise pollsters in today's Pennsylvania primary, Jackson enthusiasts say.
''Now is not the time to be a traditional Democrat,'' says state Rep. Hardy Williams (D) of Philadelphia, an ardent supporter of Mr. Jackson. ''When we talk about Jesse Jackson, we talk about a black man who's creating a rainbow coalition. A black voter would be out of step to consider any other candidate. And white union workers are feeling the pangs of unemployment. Jesse talks about these issues.''
Jackson may be making inroads into Pennsylvania, with its high percentage of unemployed smokestack-industry workers. (In January, the state showed a 10.1 percent jobless rate - more than two percentage points higher than the US average.) He appears to have impressed lower-level union leaders around Pittsburgh. Among labor leaders endorsing Jackson is Ronald Weason, a candidate for national president of the US Steelworkers.
Jackson's most enthusiastic endorsement has come from Homestead, Pa., a Pittsburgh suburb where 3,000 of 7,000 steelworkers have been laid off. Mayor Steve Simko and a number of local union leaders endorsed Jackson last Thursday.
''Jesse is the only one who speaks for us,'' shouted one supporter at a weekend rally in Homestead, which was attended by scores of whites as well as blacks.
A plant's workers should get the first shot at keeping a factory open, and the government should give them tax breaks to stay in business, Jackson told the crowd.
''That's the rainbow he's been talking about,'' another enthusiast shouted.
Represenative Williams, who in 1971 became the first black to campaign seriously for mayor of Philadelphia, says 90 percent of Pennsylvania's black electorate is also behind Jackson. ''Walter Mondale won't do as much for us as Jesse.''
But all is not roses here for Jackson, who has raced from churches to basketball games, to whistle stops, to union gatherings, to street corners to try to brighten his rainbow coalition. While he won 87 percent of the black vote in last week's New York primary and 79 percent of the black vote in the earlier Illinois primary, Jackson did not managed to attract even 5 percent of the white vote. And he faces other obstacles.
W. Wilson Goode, Philadelphia's first black mayor, who took office four months ago, stands by his support of Mr. Mondale and has personally campaigned with him.
Mr. Williams says Mayor Goode is ''out of step (with the black community) in this primary,'' but ''I understand his integrity as an honorable man by keeping his promise to back Mondale.''
Jackson is also hounded by two other campaign controversies: first, his references to Jews and New York City in a private conversation with Washington Post reporter Milton Coleman, and, second, a subsequent threat against Mr. Coleman by minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, whose followers are often called Black Muslims.
Jackson has been pressured by reporters on national television - most recently Sunday on NBC's ''Meet the Press'' - to explain his remarks. His position has been that he is not anti-Jewish, and that he has tried to arrange a meeting between Coleman and Mr. Farrakhan.
In Sunday's Washington Post, Coleman explained his position:
''It is not my job to avoid controversy for Jackson,'' he wrote as he told how and why his private conversation with Jackson appeared in another reporter's story in the paper's Feb. 13 issue. ''His aides have that job. Reporters do not try to help or hurt the candidates they cover. They just cover them.''
Farrakhan leads a splinter group from the American Muslim Mission (once headed by the late Elijah Muhammad). Until now, Farrakhan and his 100,000 black followers had protested white politics and government by refusing to register to vote. Now, for the first time, they will vote, openly supporting Jackson.
Jackson, a follower of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his credo of nonviolence, says he does not approve of Farrakhan's threats against Coleman.
Nevertheless, the civil rights-leader-turned-politician hopes to carry the momentum of New York (where he won 26 percent of the vote to Senator Hart's 27 percent) into Pennsylvania.
The state - 10th in black voting population (720,000) among the states but eighth in unregistered black voters (294,000) - could, however, become the first state where Jackson's ''rainbow coalition'' shows more than token representation from whites.
On Friday, Jackson and his camp boarded a motor caravan to travel from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. He stopped in a number of small towns along the way to appeal to union workers, laid-off workers, and the unemployed. Saturday, he flew to New Orleans to assist a new organization of black ministers that is seeking black business investments to boost the black economy. Now he's back in Pennsylvania to wrap up his primary campaign.
Pittsburgh campaign worker Debrah Thomas, busy with telephones and inquiries, says: ''We're reaching the college campuses here. Our rally at Pitt (University of Pittsburgh) drew 55 percent white to 45 percent black.''