Charleston, W.Va. — Other states holding primary elections next Tuesday will have more delegates, but for the presidential candidacy of Walter F. Mondale, none is more important symbolically than West Virginia.
For if any place should be Mondale country, it's this mountainous state with the nation's highest rate of unemployment. Here, the economy relies on the ailing industries of coal, steel, and glass, and most of the state has yet to feel a recovery.
Moreover, the state's Democratic establishment, including Gov. Jay Rockefeller, has backed Mr. Mondale. And while the state's potent labor unions have worked for candidates in the past, never have they pulled out the stops as they have for former vice-president.
''I think he'd be labor's type of people in the White House,'' says Tom Morris, a coal-field truck driver and chairman of the state's Coal Miners Political Action Committee.
If Mondale, who lost narrowly to Sen. Gary Hart in neighboring Ohio, should run poorly in West Virginia, ''it'd look bad for a lot of us,'' says Mr. Morris.
Mondale supporters can take some comfort from the West Virginia Poll released this week, showing that nearly 56 percent of the Democrats prefer Mondale, while 34 percent picked Colorado's Senator Hart and 5 percent chose the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. The poll, published by the Charleston Daily Mail, points to a seesawing mood, since an earlier survey showed Hart in the lead.
Mondale forces are far from relaxed. Joe Bob Goodwin, Democratic Party chairman in West Virginia, argues that to assume that Mondale ''has this state locked up'' is wrong. ''It could be a real contest,'' he says.
''I don't think we're real nervous, but we're working real hard,'' says Chip Carter, son of the former president, who came three weeks ago to head the Mondale campaign in the state. His budget includes no money for TV ads, and his candidate has spent most of his time stumping in more populous California and New Jersey.
Meanwhile, Hart has spent even less money in West Virginia, although supporters hold out tempered hopes for a surprise on Tuesday. The Coloradan came this week to ride in the state's biggest Memorial Day parade in Grafton, where he was drenched with rain but gained considerable free media coverage. Residents who braved the downpour greeted Hart warmly as he pumped hands held out along the parade route.
Visits are considered key in little-noticed West Virginia, where folks still fondly remember the 1960 primary here in which John F. Kennedy lavished attention on voters and was rewarded with a victory that catapulted him to the nomination.