The pocketbook issue finally is beginning to work against President Carter, but it isn't yet working very effectively for Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, a sampling around the nation shows.

Although voters clearly are concerned about inflation and the rising unemployment rate -- and now seem prepared to blame Carter for them -- they still aren't persuaded Reagan would be able to do much better.

Moreover, the GOP front-runner's effort to seize the initiative on the tax-cut issue -- the centerpiece of Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign -- also seems to have fallen falt.

Despite a stampede by Senate Democrats to promise a tax cut that would match Reagan's bid, Americans appear generally opposed to -- or at least seriously skeptical about -- a tax reduction any time soon.

There's a widespread feeling that any broad-scale income-tax cut would be too small to make much differnece to individual pocketbooks and would only risk exacerbating inflation, which voters seem bent on avoiding at almost all costs.

These are some of the impressions that emerged from a series of discussions with Americans from a variety of income levels and occupations during recent visits to Mason City, Worcester, Mass; Rockford, Ill.; San Jose, Dallas and Columbus, Ga.

The voters' comments, collected informally during dozens of interviews, are in no way intended to serve as a statistically broad sampling. Nevertheless, the trends cited seemed pronounced enough to serve as a valid general guide.

The new feeling of disenchantment stands in visible contrast to the voters' mood last autumn, when Americans were plainly frustrated by inflation and the sharp rise in energy prices but weren't ready to blame Carter for them.

A similar round of talks then with voters and political leaders showed that while Americans believed generally that Carter was "weak" and "inept" on the economic front, they were willing to be forgiving about it.

The prevailing sentiment in October was that the economic problems the nation was facing were "too big for any one person to solve" and that the president too often was "getting a hard time from Congress."

There seemed to be a clear willingness on the part of voters then to excuse any lapses on grounds that Carter was a "decent" man. There also was widespread doubt that any other candidate could do the job much better.

This time, however, interviews with many of the same families and political leaders showed that the voters clearly have lost patience with Carter's economic policies and view the president as not up to the job.

Typical of these responses was that of Sandy Cranford, 38, a Holden, Mass., housewife. Last October, Cranford said she "can't blame Jimmy Carter for this mess -- there's nobody coming down the pike who can do it better."

Cranford's outlook now is decidedly different:

"I'm very discouraged," she said in an interview recently. "I still have a high trust level for the man, but something's not working. It just keeps getting worse and worse. I'm really in a bind as to what to do in November."

Jerry Hill, a 34-year-old Rockford, Ill., routeman turned white-collar worker, rates Carter as "too weak, too afraid to make decisions" and generally bumbling.

"I voted for Carter over Ford in 1976 because I thought Ford had done nothing, but Carter has done even less," Hill told a visitor late last month. "I'm much more down on him now than I was in October."

The lukewarm attitude toward a tax cut pervades all but the very lowest income groups among working Americans. Voters doubt first that any cut would be big enough to help them much. Many also voice fears it will refuel inflation.

"I sense they would take it, but they're not pushing it," says Rep. Joseph D. Early (D-Mass.), fresh fromn a recess spent with his Worcester constituents.

Rockford consultant Norbert E. Schwarz agrees. "People have a diffiuclt time relating to a tax cut this year," Schwarz says. "They aren't afraid of it. They're just saying 'so what?'"

Typical of many comments was that of Corky Houchard, a Dallas construction firm employee:

"We'd all be better off with a little more money in our pockets," Houchard says, "but I'm afraid it would fuel inflation and we'd be right back where we were."

Dick Cranford, a Holden, Mass., insurance analyst and husband of Sandy Cranford, discounts the benefits from any tax cut as "Chinese money." If all the cut would do is increase the deficit, he says, "it wouldn't be any help at all."

In another often-heard viewpoint, Polly Hill, wife of the Rockford white-collar worker, reckons that any tax cut the nation might afford probably would be too small to have much impact on consumers' pocketbooks.

"Two hundred dollars for me -- whoopee!" Mrs. Hill says. Adds Johnny Johnson, a black factory worker in the Columbus area: "What are you going to do with $400 these days? I just don't think it will help."

Tom Legere, a Worcester bricklayer, says he'd be "all for" a tax cut this year "if they showed me that that tax cut generated something -- like more jobs. But it's just going to put the country back into debt again. So why bother?"

And Lyle Harrell, a military retiree in Columbus, Ga., contends it would be senseless to channel money into a tax cut in the face of today's heavy federal spending obligations.

"It's like taking the money out of your pocket and saying, 'I don't need it,'" Harrell said. "I would not go for a tax cut," he declared.

Such widespread voter skepticism over the tax-cut issue parallels similar findings in surveys taken by California pollster Merwin Field, New York researcher Louis Harris and a Des Moines Register and Tribune poll.

The Post's interviews also show voters less insistent on a balanced budget than they were last October. Many are resigned, along with laid-off Rockford iron worker Dennis L. Yost, to the beleif that "it just may not be possible."

At the same time, Americans seem more persuaded than ever that there is a substantial amount of "waste" in the federal budget -- and they want government spending cut sharply.

"People found that the balanced budget is not the end-all and be-all that they thought it was," said Iowa state Rep. Betty Jean Clark. "More than a balanced budget, it's the spending cut they really want."

The one major exception is on the issue of defense outlays.

The interviews showed that as much as Americans want to see "waste" cut, they want to see defense spending visibly increased -- part of a general voter anxiety that U.S. power and influence worldwide is slipping.

"I feel like we're behind Russia and we need to step it up." declared Johnny Johnson, the Columbus-area factory worker, who says he woted for Carter in 1976 but feels the U.S. has slid too far internationally.

"Concurs Corky Houchard, the Dallas construction-firm employe: "We've just lost all our superiority . I can't believe how they've shoved us around in Iran. If we had another Cuban missile crisis, I'll bet we couldn't do a blockade."

The interviews also show that Republican candidates Reagan has more to contend with than the general voter skepticism over tax reductions in selling his tax-cut proposal to the electorate.

Although Reagan has been insisting that his tax-cut plan is different than Carter's and would be more "noninflationary" than the president's, he apparently hasn't gotten that across very effectively to the voters.

Most of those interviewed over the past few weeks just weren't familiar with the details of Reagan's plan to see any difference.

"I'm not tuned into it," said Muriel Martin, a San Jose single parent.

Voters also seemed to be generally apathetic -- at least for the moment -- about the sharp rise in Social Security payroll taxes scheduled for Jan. 1. There was little call for rolling it back -- though that could change soon.

Indeed, many younger workers apparently are convinced the Social Security fund will go bust before they're ready to retire and reap any benefits from it. f

"By the time I'm retired, I don't believe there's going to be Social Security," said Bob Kalvig, a 26-year-old Mason City metalworker. "I'll probably have to work all my life."

Echoed Tom Legere, 32, the Worcester bricklayer: "Am I even going to have Social Security when I'm old?I'm not sure I will.

The pocketbook issue is only one of several major complaints that voters brought up when questioned during the recent interviews.

There's also widespread frustration over Carter's handling of the Iranian hostage issue. And farmers appear angrier than generally has been thought about the president's Jan. 4 Soviet grain embargo.

The interviews show Americans cearly believe that Carter has mishandled the hostage situation and that, in part as a result of that mishandling, U.S. standing internationally has declined too far.

"That's something that really bothers me," said Belen Deardeuff, a Mason City, Ia., farmer's wife."I know there's not a lot the president can do, but he's kind of put [the hostages] by the wayside."

Agrees Joe Kennedy, a Columbus millworker: "The hostage situation is way past what it should be." Similar comments came from a variety of voters in all age and income brackets.

There now appears to be a widespread feeling among voters that the administration simply is inept, too ready to flip-flop and not in control of the situation.

In a view that contasts ironically with the public's mood in 1976, Doris Prohaska, an Iowa farmer's wife, contends that what the nation needs is a president who has more experience.

"If they haven't been in the House or Senate, they're just not well-enough prepared," she said.

And last October's residue of sympathy, in which voters branded the president as often-bumbling but at the same time excused him as "a good and decent man," also has dissipated.

Mason City's Belen Beardeuff, for example said she voted for Carter in 1976 "because he seemed like a man you could trust." But this time, she noted ominously. "When I registered, it was as an independent."

As Iowa Rep. Clark sees it, "The Democrats and Republicans who voted for Carter because he was 'a good Christian man' are saying it's going to take more than that. They've come to the realiztion that even Christians can be inept."

At the same time, the pervasive disenchantment with Carter doesn't necessarily mean that Ronald Reagan is a shoo-in -- at least, according to the responses of voters in this past monht's discussions.

The interviews show that for all the apparent impatience with Carter, many voters still are not yet prepared to vote for Reagan. A sizable proportion plans to sit home on Nov. 4 or vote for third-party candidate John Anderson.

Analysts say it's still too early to tell precisely how badly the economic issue ultimately will hurt Carter when election time finally rolls around. If the economic picture brightens and inflation slows, the impact could be muted.

Meanwhile, however, the most cogent analysis during the two-week trip came from Eva Jimmerson, 78, a retired nurse in San Jose:

"We need a couple more like Teddy Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman," she said. "But we don't have'em."