HUEYTOWN, ALA. -- For motorists heading west along U.S. 59 at the end of a workday, the deep-red sunset is suddenly blackened by the Fairfield Works, a massive monument to the industrial South in central Alabama, where the hills are blessed with iron ore, limestone and coal -- ingredients of American steel.

Spread over 1,500 acres, the U.S. Steel plant is one of the premier producers of stainless pipe, coil and tin plate. Twenty years ago, 20,000 people poured out the plant gates. Today the work force is only one-tenth as large, the result of foreign competition that nearly drove the industry under and, more recently, a $1 billion modernization has replaced men with machines.

That kind of massive job contraction would suggest an electorate strongly tied to the Democratic Party, which traditionally has given voice to the frustrations of workers. But rather it has come at a time of rising Republican dominance in the South -- at least in presidential elections -- built in part on the strength of white, working-class voters. Once they worked in these steel plants, but today they populate the service and medical businesses that have grown up around Birmingham. They are people who were born into Democratic families, who once voted for George C. Wallace when he ran for president, but who now vote Republican -- and many are middle-class.

The Democrats will need white southerners if they hope to recapture the White House next November, and they came out of their 1984 drubbing vowing to retool their image in a way that would woo back these voters. If that movement back home had begun, some early signs would be detectable in communities like this. But recent interviews with voters in this working-class suburb of Birmingham do not show that. For the Democrats, the prospects are not encouraging.

While the forces that led to the rupture between these voters and the Democratic Party -- desegregation, the domestic programs of the Great Society, the antiwar movement, the rise of the counterculture -- played themselves out years ago, they remain the lens through which voters now view an entirely different set of issues -- largely economic, rather than racial and cultural -- that have moved front and center in the 1980s.

Listen to Arthur Johnson, a carpenter, who lives here with his wife, Janice, and two teen-age children.

"My granddaddy is firmly convinced that the only way to go to heaven is as a Democrat," he said. "He . . . started out farming, then the coal mines, then he ended up being a carpenter. And in those years, the Democratic Party was good for those people. I don't think my granddaddy's changed. The Democratic Party, they don't stand for middle America anymore. Look at their coalition, they are all radical, radical women, homosexuals, every left-wing group they can get to storm Washington.

"Along about the time {former Alabama governor} Wallace was fading out of the picture, the national Democratic Party was trying to campaign with these radical left-wing groups that the average steelworker, coal miner and carpenter -- we just can't agree with because we work hard. If we want something, we believe in working and earning it."

Johnson was one of 41 people interviewed by The Washington Post. The interviews, including a three-hour focus group session with voters who supported President Reagan but usually backed Democrats in races for local office, suggest that the Democratic Party faces an uphill battle in its attempt to recapture the droves of defectors it lost in recent elections.

The desertion could hardly be more total. In 1984, Reagan carried 71 percent of the votes of white southerners. Not counting Jimmy Carter's 1976 campaign, which stoked regional pride, Democratic presidential candidates have carried only two southern states (Georgia in 1980, Texas in 1968) in the past two decades. This in a region that was once solidly Democratic and that, even today, elects a higher percentage of Democrats to state and local offices (77 percent of southern state legislators are Democrats) than any other region.

"The populist Democratic Party is dying," said Natalie Davis, a political scientist at Birmingham-Southern College. She argues that the core interest groups supporting the Alabama Democratic Party -- the Alabama Education Association, the unions and liberal whites -- are not only inadequate to form a winning coalition for a Democratic presidential candidate but can be a liability.

Indirectly, her thesis is supported by Al LaPierre, executive director of the Alabama Democratic Party. "The Democratic base for years was the black voters and the white blue-collar voters," he said. "The left-wing tangents of the {national} Democratic Party have scared the hell out of those {blue-collar} folks."

Replacing the populist Democratic tradition, Davis contends, is a "corporatist" ideology, a belief in using government to strengthen and encourage business -- "to put your money on money" instead of expanding and strengthening the government safety net.

Interviews with voters support her thesis:

"This is a very strong union area," said Keith Parsons, who runs a small business, "but if the union had remained as strong as it was 10 or 15 years ago, the people would have suffered, because we've had Japanese and Taiwan material come in here and take the market. Really and truly, they were cheaper and better."

"The United States is pricing itself out of the market and the No. 1 problem in this country is the unions," said R.L. Edmondson, 38, a state employe who lost his furniture business in the 1982 recession. "We done it to ourselves."

"I identify the unions with the Democratic Party," said his wife, Kay, a postal employe. "Years ago there was a need for them, but they both went overboard."

This theme of "we done it to ourselves" was echoed repeatedly in the focus group discussion. Several participants said that weaknessess of national character, rather than of government policy, were the root cause of the nation's economic woes. And to the extent they gave those character flaws a political flavoring, it tended Democratic.

"We're a hedonistic society," said John Bivans, a dentist.

"We are a land of plenty, but we waste things, and we are going to have to pay," said Barbara Hobbs, a secretary.

"These giveaway programs have taught people they don't have to do a day's work for a day's pay," said Marilyn Hallman, a teacher.

In Hueytown, one of the most unionized communities in the state, not only has Reagan won overwhelming victories, but the Republican Party has begun to make inroads in competitions for state and local offices.

In 1986, former lieutenant governor Bill Baxley ran for governor as the Democratic nominee with the full backing of the unions. In one Hueytown precinct, Baxley got an abysmal 23.2 percent of the vote, 636 votes compared with 2,110 for Guy Hunt, who became Alabama's first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

In the suburb's legislative district, two of the three state representatives are Republicans, an unprecedented development in this community where it is a commonplace to meet men and women whose parents never cast a vote for a Republican in their lives.

Throughout the South, a strong middle class has emerged that has been the driving force in the assertion of the "corporatist" ideology described by Davis.

Merle and Earl Black, two of the leading political scientists specializing in the South, wrote in their book "Politics and Society in the South":

"The reigning political philosophy of the new southern middle class is . . . {a} blend of conservative and progressive themes. In its emphasis on low rates of taxation, minimal regulation of business, and resolute opposition to unions and redistributive welfare programs for the have-nots and have-littles, the current political ideology retains important continuities with the traditionalistic political culture. Its progressive element consists in its willingness to use governmental resources to construct the public infrastructure -- highways, airports, harbors, colleges and universities, research parks, health complexes -- that in turn stimulates and makes possible additional economic growth."

The ideological preferences of the white middle class provide a firm base for the GOP, and, according to the Black brothers, "The political landscape of the white working class is remarkably similar to that of the white middle class."

Along with the "corporatist" ideology, race continues to divide southern voters. Claude Eison, a retired carpet and linoleum installer, and his wife Anna, cast their last votes for Reagan before moving out of Birmingham to Hueytown. "It was all black where we were," he said.

Hueytown is a largely white community with a separate government from Birmingham, a city once best known for its segregationist police chief, Bull Connor, and now politically controlled by a powerful black mayor, Richard Arrington, and his New South Coalition. Arrington, in Eison's view, "is a racist . . . . He leans toward the blacks." His wife, Anna, cautioned: "Naturally he leans toward them because he is black. He feels like they've had a dirty deal till now, and he figures since he got in, he'll do for them."

Mac Parsons, the local state senator, contends that the rise of Republican voting is "less a matter of economics than it is a matter of race. If the voters had to choose between a Saturn plant {like the new General Motors Corp. facility in Tennessee} with 10,000 jobs, and all the spinoff and business, or {the power to} make the blacks ride on the back of buses again -- you can have one but you can't have both -- I can't tell you how the election would go."

The ideological tension in this working class area is reflected in the conflicting assessments of the voters by Johnny Curry, the Hueytown-Mt. Pleasant Republican state representative, and Parsons, the Democratic state senator.

"There are an awful lot of blue-collar voters who have changed attitudes about a business climate in Alabama," Curry said. "A lot of them had an attitude that for many years it was just a big joyride. They now recognize some of the problems businesses have gotten themselves into."

Parsons countered: "Take away the race and they {the voters of Hueytown and Bessemer} are Democrats. Let me and Johnny Curry run against each other. Let him talk about his friend Joe Farley, president of the Alabama Power Co., {and that} what we've got to do in the state is make it so you make the most profit you can if you invest in a corporation. And then let me talk to them about power rates, the fact that our side of town does the sewage treatment for the other side. If you ever cut through race, they {the voters} are Democrats."

Although race has been, and remains, a central factor in the rise of the Republican Party south of the Mason-Dixon Line, it is not the only factor. Southern whites, for example, poll 10 to 15 points more supportive of defense spending than whites in the rest of the country, and this issue remains a sore point for a Democratic Party associated with calls for cuts in Pentagon budgets and with opposition to overseas military intervention.

"People in this area are very conservative when it comes to national defense," Curry said. "It is not a liability to be a supporter of aid to the contras, the Persian Gulf or believing we need to spend dollars on the national defense. Virtually every {national} Democratic candidate takes a position that is opposite to what the voters perceive."