Out here in Mr. Lincoln's country, where the sense of politics remains sharp and shrewd, people are trying to do much more than determine the lesser of the evils in this presidential race. They are assessing which would be the greater of the evils -- and then rejecting them.

The distinction is important. Voters are carefully sifting through all they can learn about the candidates and planning to vote as positively as possible. In what they see as a dangerous time, they want the best available person to direct the nation's affairs for the next critical four years.

Making the most persuasive case for one of them in terms of the larger good of the country remains difficult, especially in recent days. Wary now is the word on the prairie. The strong convictions of spring and summer that Reagan was the answer and Anderson the alternative and Cater the impossible are less certain as the first chill winds of fall sweep across Springfield and Sangamon County. A month ago this area seemed solidly for Reagan, and it appeared almost certain he would carry his home state of Illinois. But suddenly this election appears up for grabs, and not because one event has transformed attitudes.

The last few weeks of campaigning have resulted in even more expressions of public disaffection toward the three major candidates, further damaging each of them. There are the political consequences: Anderson's strength fast erodes, and seems likely to disintegrate even more rapidly as election day approaches. Reagan's wounds, largely self-inflicted, look permanent. Carter, who stood the most to gain in this period, suffers from new feelings of disapproval about the type of campaign he's waged and for failing to debate his two rivals.

But disagreeable as the presidential situation continues to seem to most people, the hard grappling with current choices begins to narrow down to a final, if unhappy, decision. That personal struggle offers both distrubing and reassuring evidence about the state of the country today -- disturbing because of the long term implications of public attitudes about the political process, reassuring because of the serious way people are exercising their citizenship in this dispiriting election.

People can tell you exactly why they may vote the way they will, and articulate all the complicated thinking that has brought them to their present position. They also are expressing deeper concerns that go far beyond the immediate election; increasingly you hear talk about the breakdown of the political system and the need to have something different next time. How many elections with such tepid choices must the country endure, people are asking themselves and their friends. They are wondering how long we can survive with the kind of system that seems to be producing such candidates. The Republican

Calista Herdon's roots extended deep into Illinois and the Republican Party. Her own family came to this section long before the "Great Snow," the way old families like to delineate their time of settlement, in 1840. On her late husband's side, one of his family ws the father of Springfield while Billy Herdon was Lincoln's law partner and later his biographer. Herndon's, the oldest independent store in Springfield, remains as a testament to 120 consecutive years of family business here.

"My mother-in-law lived to be 102," Mrs. Herndon says with a quick laugh. "And every Lincoln's birthday someone came out to interview her. As she got older and told the stories more often to the reporters, she knew Lincoln better and better."

Calista Herndon, 78, is a remarkable woman. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago, and after being widowed she earned a master's degree from Sangamon State University here, exactly 50 years after she first left college. She's voted for every Republican presidential candidate since becoming eligible, and at one point headed the downstate GOP women for Eisenhower. Last time she voted for Ford. At first in this presidential year she was for George Busch; then she thought she would be for the Reagan-Busch ticket, became disenchanted and turned toward Anderson.

"I feel very definitely right now I'm going to vote for Carter," she says. "I'm not going to vote for Anderson because I think he'd take a vote away from Carter. Anderson can't win and I cannot vote for Reagan. I do not want Reagan to be president. I feel very strongly about it. As the campaign goes on I feel even more strongly. I think he is a danger. They've tried to keep him from talking so much and have suceeded, but when he's the president someone will have to watch him all the time to see what he's going to do.

"Most of my friends are all for Reagan. I got into an argument about it the other night at the country club. One of my friends asked me how I could vote for Carter and I said, 'Well, he's made mistakes but he's accomplished some things too.' I think the Panama Canal is a great accomplishment, and I agree with SALT. Camp David is foundering, but it's a good idea.

"I think Carter has a real chance, and more so because he's the incumbent. At the same time Carter, who is so for human rights -- and I think he sincerely is -- is a dirty politician. He stands for high principles, but, boy, he's a politician. He really digs in before an election; he always pulls something out. Right now I just read that in trying to get Mayor Byrne back he's giving millions in grants to Chicago. Byrne certainly made her faux pas. I don't like her anyway, so I don't care.

"Reagan? Well, Reagan's an actor. He can put on a show. Is his hair dyed? I can't believe it isn't. I thought on the debate he showed his age terribly.I thought he looked old, beaten down. That charm he is supposed to exude was not there.

"I do not think we're in the dire situation Reagan says we're in today. I think we're still great. I think our industry is in a bad situation. We've lost our momentum. But I'm not for tariffs. We should compete on our own. I do not feel we should exclude the Japanese. They have done a job; we need to do the job ourselves. I wish we had the combinations with labor that Germany and Japan have, but we don't. I like what the Chrysler employes did for a while. That was important.

"People say the reason they will vote for Reagan is to get the economy back. Well, how do they know he will get it back? He wants to go back to the old days, and we can't do that. I've changed, and I'm nt sure exactly how. We started a Town Hall here in springfield and I was so conservative then that I didn't want Arthur Schlesinger to speak, but 15 years later I was pleased to have Julian Bond from Alanta speak. I'm a very progressive Republican. I think it's unfortunate the ultra-right controls the party and that's what happended to Ford. If Ford had not had Dole as his vice president, he would have won. I don't think Ford is any great person, but he would have been better than Carter. It was the influence of the ultra-right in the party that beat him and I'm against that. I will not be for them. I think the platform is poor. I've changed." The City.

A stranger sees a place of remembered Midwest past -- the people friendly and open, the streets clean and shops attractive, the prarie fresh and farmland bountiful, the old state capitol in good repair and standing as a treasured monument to generations vanished. On the surface, Springfield appears prosperous, contended, somewhat insular, and provincial. (When Carter came here a few days ago on a campaign stop, a local columnist was moved to write of the "feeling of awe" at seeing a president in person and of "the thrill" at watching his arrival and seeing "the great plane itself . . . majestically beautiful on a perfect day, taxiing along the runway, its distinctive marking -- the great seal of the president of the United States -- clearly visible . . .")

But these signs are deceptive. Springfield is a higly attuned capital that has experienced substantial change over the last 20 years. The Grand Old Party of Lincoln's day no longer dominates its politics. For Republicans, the twin disaters of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon left many party members here much less quick to embrace so ardently another GOP presidential savior.

As Robert Howard, an Illinois historian who lives here, says: "This was a Goldwater stronghold. Everyone was for him, thought he was a great man, and the debacle that came in '64 was a great setback for the Republicans in many ways. Same thing with Nixon. This was strong Nixon country. In 1972, people didn't see anything in Watergate; it was something you people back East made up. Speaking as a fourth-generation Republicans, one of the things that distrubs me about the party today are the right-wing, one-issue kooks the Republicans have. They are the descendants of William Jennings Bryan and the anti-saloon league. They know what's good for us, and they're going to impose their will on the public. And the anti-saloon league -- nobody around here remembers but I remind them of it now and then -- supported all kinds of imcompetent people for office if they'd just promise to vote right."

Now here, as elsewhere in the nation, old party loyalties have declined even more and ticket-splitting is the rule.

In the past Springfield, a capital city sustained largely by government as is Washington, D.C., was able to escape severe economic dislocations in times of recession. That has not been so this time. "We've suffered more than we have at probably an time since the Depression," says Edward Armstrong, editor of The State Journal-Register, the daily paper. "I don't mean it's terribly bad, but it's worse than it's been. Unemployment in Springfield has gone up over 10 percent. That's very high for a place like this. Our newspaper advertising has just nosedived. It's the biggest decline in the nearly 30 years I've worked here. The greatest share of the loss is in real estate and automobiles. Our real estate advertising this year is only 50 percent what it was last year. So you can see what the high interest rates have done to the real estate market. It's really dramatic."

Armstrong's own political views reflect the community's shifting political currents. Four years ago he voted for Carter, while his wife was for Ford. Now she's going to vote for Anderson while he is genuinely undecided. "I probably won't make up my mind until I walk into the polling booth," he says. The Reagan Voter

Mark O. Roberts has had a distinguished career as a lawyer -- for some years he headed the state board of legal examiners and later served as special counsel to the Illinois attorney generl during the corruption investigation that sent former state auditor Orville E. Hodge to jail in 1956 -- and also has operated a Springfield insurance company founded by his father years ago. He thinks of himself as a middle-of-the-road Republican who began the year strongly for George Bush. Now he's strongly for Reagan. w

"I feel that four more years of Carter's miserable, inept guidance -- not even guidance -- would be most unfortunate," he says. "At first I fell for the idea that he's a good guy. But now I don't believe it. And I'll tell you why. This negative approach of Carter, these low blows of his -- the charge that it's war or peace if we elect Reagan and that Reagan is a racist -- these two things alone are unbelievable. Those are not statements of a quality good man, or a man that purports to be a Christian leader. I just don't buy it. I cannot buy Carter.

"Another reason I've turned against that goody-goody attitude, and I think many people have, is because of the people around him. I have never been able to buy Mr. Hamilton Jordan, and to think he's almost assistant to the president is damn near frightening. He's the wrong kind of person, I'll put it that way. An then of course I've been upset about Civiletti. I thought when Benjamin Civiletti went in there as attorney general after the Mitchell problems -- and I wrote Nixon and Mitchell time and time again to resign, to come off that claim of presidential privilege and all that malarkey and of course finally the judicial system took its toll -- but I though when these new people went in there all that sort of thing would stop.

"I'm adamant about Carter and the people around him. In my judgment they're cunning, they're shrewd, they're tricky. I'm convinced these men are not quality people. I felt most upset with Ford last time because he had pardoned Mison. The system should have taken its course there, and secondly because he dumpted Rocky. I thought Rockefeller was my kind of man. I'm not a rightist or radical rightist. I don't even know that I'm a conservaive when I see some of these so-called conservative people. I think one must keep his mind open. Although I am very strong about things that Reagan advocates.

"I want you to understand that after the last election I started with an attitude, he's going to wipe the slate clean. He claimed he was going to balance the budget, he calimed he would cut through his horrible bureaucracy that I have a fetish about. And I kept that good will up along until the Lance case and some of Jordan's antics. Then my good will began to evaporate. The Lance case was a disgrace. By God, we couldn't have any bankers around here do what he did down there. That's when my attitude changed entirely. I said to my wife, 'Honey, this man's no good.' So that's when I got rid of Carter in my mind. His record since then has just made me a nervous man. I really stay awake at night sometimes worrying.

"I compare the character of Reagan and Carter and to me Reagan is a decent, honorable man. He comes across to me as a man who's sincere, not as someone who wants to turn the clock back like Strauss as these guys are charging, but to go back to American fundamentals -- decency, morality, integrity.

"'Course I'm for Reagan's positive strong stand to build up our defenses. I'm convinced we can't stand up to Russia unless we meet them equally on the same ground. And we can't do that with stuff that falls apart like these missiles are all falling apart out there, and every time they scratch the surface of our armed services we find they're in a hell of a mess. So I like Reagan's defense program. I know it's going to be a hard job to cut taxes and balance the budget, but I'm for trying it.

"If Carter had any kind of a program, if Carter had any guts, he'd go before this Democratic Congress -- and goddamn it they control the Congress -- and say, 'Look, we're in an emergency with recession and inflation. Let's do something.' What's he do but pussyfoot around and come out with a great big goddamn nonentity package of something-for-everybody program. And then he says we're not going to do anything of this until the first of the year, until after the election. Everything's always after the election." The Black

Springfield, despite the aura of Lincoln, has never been that great a place for blacks. Early in the centruy a race riot here helped create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Springfield has remained less than an American model for black opportunities. Clarissa Hale has known that all her life. Now 49, she was born here and has seen five of her six childeren leave for better chances elsewhere. Now hard times have come for her too: An electrical plant where she worked as an inspector closed down, and she augments her husband's truck driver income by working as a maid. She's a registered voter; as she says, 'I vote all the time.' In 1976 she was for Ford.

"We really don't have that much choice now," she says of this election. That's my opinion of it. I definitely wouldn't vote for the Republican candidate, Reagan. He's not steady. He doesn't give me the impression of a man who could handle this responsibility, not with the state the country is in now. 'Cause all I see now is war.

"I have a boy that went to Vietnam, and just before he went there was this same uproar -- the country dissatisfied and all of a sudden we got in the middle of it. I feel it's going to heappen. If you just look at the starvation in the world and look at all these missiles they had on television last night. The're getting ready to bomb, they're all ready for it. There's no way I can see us staying out of it, because it's going to cut off our oil right there.

"The air just feels like war. Everybody you talk to just seems like they're tensed up, waiting for something to happen. That's just about the talk of everybody."

Of Carter she says: "I think we're stuck with him. He wouldn't be my choice if there was somebody else to run. To me, he's just a meek, mild man. He doesn't have too much gumption. But right now I don't see any other choice. I think he's done the best that he could do. He hasn't done the best I would like to see him do. But I cannot see another man coming in now and trying to learn what he's learned. If you start a job you should finish it." The Anderson Factor

Keke Anderson, the candidate's wife, was in town to speak at campaign headquarters across the street from the old capitol. "A wine and cheese event," an old-timer remarked sardonically, "sort of typical of the Anderson campaign."

The turnout was good, a jazz painist played, and Mrs. Anderson delivered a long, tough extemporaneous speech that brought some applause, if perhaps not many votes. "I firmly believe this country cannot govern in this paticular time in the nation's history," she said, in strident tones, "unless we elect an independent president."

She laid out the case against the opponents. On Reagan: "Bombs are dropping in Iran and Iraq tonight and you have a candidate who tells us we've got enough oil in the ground to last 100 years Don't you believe it." On Carter: "Candidate Carter cannot win. First of all, he will not carry California and he will not carry new York."

The aftermath of her performance was not positive. Keke Anderson didn't go over in Springfield. Calista Herndon, who was present, spoke for more than herself when she described Mrs. Anderson's appearance as "very poor. She's too self-promotive, she's too aggressive, she's too too." Others there agreed Mrs. Anderson didn't help her husband.

In fact, the Anderson effort already appeared to be unraveling. A number of those who turned out for the rally were wavering, or like Mrs. Herndon, already had decided definitely not to vote for him. They didn't want to waste their votes.

Sally Horney, for instance. She's an anthropologist whose first taste in politics was as an Adlai Stevenson volunteer in 1952 after graduating from Wellesley. Anderson interests, here, but now she's moving toward Carter. "By November it will be clear if Anderson is a factor at all," she says. "He probably will not be, at which point people I know already are saying they will not throw their vote away and will vote for Carter, and so will I." Her concern is the greater of the evils -- in her mind, that's reagan -- and what she sees as a dangerous decade approaching. "There's no basis for consensus out in the country," she believes. "The country is going in too many directions, there's not even a solid minority you can latch onto . This decade concerns me because I think we might get the '60s in reverse -- the equivalent of the right no dominating events. It's going to be just as chaotic in its way as the '60s, when the left was dominant."

Other Anderson supporters, wrestling with what is now conceded to be a losing candidacy, find themselves deep in a period of self-examination over how they will vote eventually. "Everyone says, 'Ah, why vote for Anderson, you're just throwing your vote away,'" says Joe Saner, active in Civic and political affairs here and a registered Republican who voted for Carter last time. "But I still feel I'm going to vote for Mr. Anderson because I have to vote my conscience, and I think he's the best choice of the presidential candidates. It's a terribly hard decision because if you feel he's pulling votes away from Mr. Carter and you don't want to see Mr. Reagan, then do you not vote for Mr. Carter? Is Anderson jut a spoiler? I don't think he means to be, but it could work out that way. Or do you vote for him because you think he's the best man?" The Farmers

Jim and Bonnie Wagner, both in their early 40s, raise soybeans and corn on a farm in Divernon, outside Springfield. Jim voted for Nixon in 1972 and switched to Carter last time. Bonnie, who grew up in a strong Republican family, voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections.

"Four years ago, if Reagan had got in over Ford, I think I'd have voted for him," Jim says, while seated around the dining table with his wife, "but today I'm not so sure. At that time I though he did wonderful things for California. Though he got 'em out of the red and though the United States government needs to be working towards that. But right now I don't know whether he's smart enough to be president. If he's got the right advisers I think he probably could be. But I guess he's blowed his top three or four times. Didn't he make another rash statement the other day? If he's going to be president, he's got to be a little more careful."

Bonnie: "Too many times he's had to clarify his statements. It seems to me he's not sure of what he's saying."

She thinks Anderson doesn't have a chance -- "he's sort of a spoiler" -- and her husband agrees: "He's an Illinois boy, but out east there's some interest in him. Can you tell us why?"

There concerns are familiar -- inflation, interest rates, too much government interference and an uncertain future. "Right now, I worry about what a mess we're building for our children," Bonnie says. "It's tremendous in our lifetime. I mean when we started out I never had any doubts that we could do anything we wanted by working every day. And we went out and we did it. And I don't know if it's because I'm getting older myself, but I look at what the kids have to go through with prices and interest rates and I worry. How can you buy a home? How can our son really get into farming, as he wants to do? and they're all hard workers. And I feel that way about other kids: A lot of kids aren't even going to have as good a chance."

They're also worried about war. "I heard the comment that we'd be in war by the end of October," Jim says. "I didn't raise my children to feed them and have them shoot at 'em too." Bonnie: "If war starts, it wouldn't be something we started but something we got sucked into, and there again it goes back to your kids: Here we are involved in so many different spots in the world and 15 years from now there could be a problem in anyone of them. What is that saying about old men starting wars and young men have to fight them?"

Neither of them has any great enthusiasm for Carter, but both express sympathy for the president, "He's basically a decent human being," Bonnie says. "But I think he's ill-advised. I think government has gotten too big. And the same thing would happen to any president. How can he know?" Jim echoes her thoughs: "So much has happened in the last four years, and there's not much he can do about it. I say ain't none of 'em my choice but I guess right now we have to go with Carter." The Legacy

For all the reminders of Mr. Lincoln here -- the tomb, the house the college and the stores and streets bearing his name -- no one by that name appears to live in Springfield anymore. Perhaps it's just as well, for Lincoln has become our exalted larger-than-life president, the example for politicians of all stripes to claim. The ritual bending of the knee before the lincoln shrine often breeds cynicism in the observer. (The last time I visited Springfield was in 1968, accompanying George Wallace on a presidential campaign swing. The picture of Wallace remains indelible. At the peak of his fire-eating demagogic railings against blacks and warings about running over demonstrators with his car, he reverently placed a wreath at Lincoln's tomb.

Lincoln, of course, was something quite different from the legend. He was reviled in his own lifetime; the sainthood came later. Even here in Springfield he was something of a loser. When he ran for the state legislature, he lost. When he served in Congress for his only two-year term, his illinois neighbors here denied him renomination because of his unpopular stand on the Mexican-American War. (He had the temerity to call on the president of that time to admit that the place where American blood was first shed was in fact Mexican territory.) When he ran for the U.S. Senate the first time, he lost. When he sought the vice-presidential nomination at the first Republican covention, he lost. He lost again when he ran for the U.S. Senate. And, finally, when he ran for the presidency, he received only 40 percent of the total popular vote, but since he was running against three other candidates that was enough to give him an electoral majority.

But the legacy and relevance of Lincoln bear examining in this presidential campaign. Lincoln was a practical, shrewd -- some say sly -- politician, an expert in government and law whose skills grew with his experience. He believed in a politics and like Jefferson, his idol, was not adverse to changing the system when necessary.

The strongest impression of voters here, and those encountered elswhere during these travels, is of their conviction that something is seriously wrong with the entire political system. In one way or another, almost everyone you talk to expresses that concern: "The Congress is totally out of controll." "It really doesn't make a hell of a lot of difference who's elected president anymore because they can't do anything." "The party system has really gone adrift, and this is one of the reason why we have this absurd setup of these two men with their pale support now heading the two major party tickets." "Maybe this country has outlived this kind of system."

These are the kinds of comments you hear from all voters, whether for Reagan, Carter or Anderson. They're not looking for another mystical Lincoln to lead them. The want something more modest and realistic -- a competent person of government who can operate in a system that works. As these feelings from the priaries show, they don't think they have either.