Sugar Creek, Mo. — ''He's for the working man, and that's what buys the groceries,'' says Harold Eads with a broad smile. A member of United Automobile Workers Local 249, he is explaining why he will vote for Missouri Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kenneth Rothman. The crowd is well supplied with Mondale and Rothman buttons.
Mr. Rothman, wearing a UAW cap and with his coat slung over his shoulder so his trademark suspenders are in full view, has just finished a rousing campaign speech at a Sunday afternoon UAW picnic here.
With much of the blue-collar vote leaning Republican these days and normally conservative farmers blaming the GOP for some of their economic troubles, Rothman appears to be working hardest to woo voters in rural areas and those who are undecided and might be tempted to shift parties.
This state of former President Harry Truman has historically been Democratic. But ''Missouri is much less a one-party state than it used to be,'' says University of Missouri political scientist Richard Dohm. It went for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and currently has a Republican in the US Senate and another in the governor's mansion.
After two terms, Gov. Christopher Bond must by law step down. The Republican gubernatorial candidate, John Ashcroft, won reelection in 1980 to his second term as attorney general by the largest margin of any state GOP candidate since Civil War days. He leads Rothman in most polls.
The current race appears to be a classic battle between an urban liberal political pro and an ''outstate'' conservative. Both men survived very tough primaries.
Rothman is a fast-talking, unflappable lawyer from the St. Louis area. Some voters say he resembles a younger version of US House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts. Before being elected lieutenant governor four years ago, Rothman served 18 years in the Missouri Legislature. He has spent more than 300 days as acting governor. ''I don't have to learn how to be a governor,'' he says. ''I know how to get things done.''
Mr. Ashcroft, the son of a Pentacostal minister, grew up in a small town in southwestern Missouri and has a ''Mr. Clean'' image. He is a graduate of Yale University and the University of Chicago Law School. Over the last 15 years he and a partner have made many statewide tours singing Gospel songs (often composed by Ashcroft) in various churches.
On one busy campaign Sunday recently he made a scheduled appearance in a small Baptist church in Kansas City with a black congregation. Though he was introduced as a man who has spent many years in government, Ashcroft did not mention the election or his political hopes. Instead he quoted freely from Deuteronomy and Isaiah and led the congregegation in singing the closing hymn, ''I have decided to follow Jesus....''
Lou Millot, political director for the GOP State Committee in Missouri, says that these days more independent voters in Missouri are calling themselves Republicans - at least 5 percent more than two years ago. That, plus the fact that no governor has been elected from the St. Louis area since World War II, may explain why Rothman appears to be paying less attention to traditional Democrats and more to courting ''soft'' Republican and independent votes.
''Rothman has campaigned as though traditional Democratic preferences in metropolitan areas were no longer decisive,'' says Robert Salisbury, a Washington University political science professor. ''He hasn't tried to capitalize on his natural base of support.... He may have read the tea leaves that the traditional Democratic constituency is disintegrating, but one reason (for that) may be that no one's going after it very hard.''
Still, Rothman is clearly counting on Democratic Party organization to help him pull off a victory. In a strategy session in a Kansas City union hall, he urges Democratic legislators from Western Missouri to work hard for him. ''A personal note (to voters) from you would by dynamite.... I can win, and I'll owe it to you.''
But, so far, it has been a campaign that Missouri's Professor Dohm describes as ''almost issueless.'' Both candidates stress the need for more jobs and better education. Both would raise teacher salaries to the national average. (Missouri now ranks 40th among states.)
Still, the philosophy and many of the specifics differ. Rothman, viewed by some voters as a tax-and-spend candidate, assures Democratic legislators, ''I'm not for blowing money all over the place.'' He favors a state lottery, and Ashcroft opposes it. But voters are expected to approve it on the November ballot.
Recognizing this, Ashcroft says he would use the money strictly for education. Rothman would channel at least some of it to banks so they could offer low-interest loans and guarantees to needy farmers. Stressing that his grandfather lost his farm in the depression and that Missouri now leads the natio in farm foreclosures, Rothman insists the state cannot afford to lose any more family farms.
Ashcroft argues that the state cannot do much for farmers on its own unless interest rates fall. His campaign speeches stress the need to develop agricultural processing industries from rice mills to soybean sauce producers and to increase farm exports.
In response to a reporter's question, Ashcroft insists that he does not ''evaluate'' where his views differ from those of his opponent. ''I just talk about my vision for the state,'' he says.
And that vision, as he spelled it out recently before a political-action committee at a Camdenton factory, includes much of what is generally regarded as traditional Republican philosophy. He stressed the need for business, citizens, and government to work more closely together as partners in every area from education and tackling crime to the environment and economic development. He says, ''If any task is worth doing, it's probably too important to ask the government to do it alone.''