Rising at 6 a.m., Gov. James A. Rhodes took a private plane from the state capital to this languishing steel center to pursue the newest twist in his 35-year struggle for political survival: an assault against the federal government.

He blamed hard times in Youngstown on federal regulations imposed by the Environment Protection Agency.

"Somewhere, somehow, someday, somebody has to stand up to the federal EPA," Rhodes declaimed in his high-pitched buckeye twang. "If they had not set five years for cleaning up the Mahoning Valley, we would not have lost steel in Youngstown."

That is how Rhodes, up to now always the candidate of good times, handles the spotty business decline under his administration. He attacks Uncle Sam, never liked much by Ohioans anyway. With such dexterity, Republican Rhodes is narrowly favored to win an unprecedented fourth term as governor of this increasingly Democratic state.

Rhodes is sole survivor of the 1964 Cleveland death dance of the elephants when Republican governors tried to stop Barry Goldwater's presidential nomination. Scranton, Ramney, Rockefeller - all the rest - are gone. Rhodes at age 68 survives, a highly invigorated fossil. By virtue of that feat, Jim Rhodes may have a lesson for the Republican Party nationally.

Unlike conservative Republicans, he avoids such succulent social issues as busing, abortion, school prayer and gun control. "Jim would rather choke than give a straight opinion on gun control," one state party leader told us. Unlike liberal Republicans, he avoids high-tax governmental problem-solving.

What he does is ingratiate himself with the non-Republican majority: labor, the aged and blacks. Besides naming two blacks to his Cabinet, Rhodes plays footsy with key black Democrats. He has a warm relationship, for instance, with Cleveland City Council President George Forbes. He aims this year for 25 percent of the black vote.

His fertile imagination conceived a non-partisan Golden Buckeye Club for senior citizens under state government auspices. The 637,826 oldsters have free club membership cards (each signed by James A. Rhodes) qualifying them for discounts in 20,632 Ohio stories.

This throwback to the famed Tammany Hall Christmas basket reflects his non-ideological, non-programmatic approach. Within minutes of scanning the morning's headlines for the latest fire, factory closing or natural disaster, he is flying to the scene for televised condolences and promises of help.

State Rep. Charles Kurfess, making a long-shot challenge against Rhodes in the June 6 Republican primary, is campaigning on the fact that Plain Jim is also Rich Jim. Amillionaire thanks to fortuitous investments in Wendy's International hamburger chain, Rhodes has a posh condominium in Florida where he shoots golf in the 70s. But Democrats know from experience there is nothing to be gained from anti-Rhodes campaigns alleging either corruption or conspicuous consumption.

Instead, strategists for his Democratic foe, Lt. Gov. Richard Celeste, plan to attack Rhodes's emphasis on new heavy industry for Ohio (most recently Ford and Honda plants) as out of date. When Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced last Sept. 19 it was closing down, Rhodes was in Youngstown for the next plant shift, promising workers to do everything he could. Celeste, 40, a suave (Cecil) Rhodes scholar, will tell Ohio that the governor failed.

But will Ohioans blame the governor or the feds? Addressing a recent breakfast fundraiser in Youngstown, Rhodes said Washington is purifying the Mahoning River by closing down steel, adding, "Who will there be to buy the fishing poles and the canoes?"

"We have more people drunk on the Ohio Turnpike Saturday night than they have in the whole state of Wyoming," he went on. "But the two senators from Wyoming say to clean up the Mahoning river." Contending the federal government "spends more money on the Washington Zoo" than extracting natural gas from Ohio's Devonian shale, he pledged to "stand up to the federal government."

Meeting later with building trades union leaders, he was asked about rumored higher taxes. "Let me tell you, there are tax payers and there are tax spenders," he replied. "Somebody has to stand between them, and that's my position. You got to stop the tax spenders. Some of them people make $75,000 a year."

During 2 1/2 hours in Youngstown, the lively fossil never mentioned Republicans or Democrats. Kurfess or Celeste or election day. After Rhodes told of seeking new steel [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Youngstown ("pinning them down is like pinning your wife down"), one labor leader told us: "He may not save the city, but he's at least showing he cares." That is Rhodes's lesson for fellow Republicans, a lesson worth studying.