Six weeks ago, a group of undecided voters in the Maryland suburbs began a search for the man they could support for the presidency. Their agendas were fairly modest. Some awaited something as traditional as a compelling policy statement from one candidate; others, something as personal as a sign of character.

They waited for something that never happened. These voters from a dozen households, followed during the last six weeks by The Post, are no surer today than they were six weeks ago. It's just that time is up.

Their separate searches for a president, taken as a whole, tell a despairing tale of the 1980 election. That story takes on national dimensions, because it reflects the unprecedented number of American voters who have been reluctant to make a choice for many of the same reasons voiced by these Marylanders.

"Why can't I get a handle on this and just pick one of them," Craig Horn, a self-made Laurel businessman, shouted out loud Tuesday night after the Carter-Reagan debate, slamming a fist into his hands. "I just don't want to make a negative choice. I don't want it to come down to the lesser of evils."

Only two of the 14 voters interviewed by Post Reporters -- Dianne Betsey of Silver Spring, and Cheryl Morrow of Gaithersburg, who both chose independent John Anderson -- found a presidential candidate to vote "for". The others, including three who still have not made up their minds, say they will register less a vote than a sign of resignation on Tuesday. Many say they are embarrassed to cast their vote for the man they ultimately selected. Some seriously considered not voting at all.

None of them took the election lightly. They listened to the campaign rhetoric. They watched for the more random signals -- the tone, the style, the indicators of a candidate's character. For many, it came down to last Tuesday's debate. Then even that failed to clarify the choice.

Horn, who decided reluctantly on Friday to vote for Reagan, embodies much of the story. He feels that Jimmy Carter won the supposedly make-or-break debate; he often finds himself leaning toward the president. Yet he doesn't want to vote for him "because he hasn't been a good president." yHe casts a wistful, "if-only" glance back on John Anderson's campaign -- the candidacy that wasn't. Somehow, he thinks as he contemplates a depressing trip to the polls, it all should have been different.

Of the 11 who had decided on a candidate by the weekend, five sided with Carter, three with Reagan and three with Anderson. But, with the exception of Dianne Betsey's and Cheryl Morrow's support for Anderson, the three candidates could hardly look at votes like these as the stuff mandates are made of.

"I'll probably end up going to the polls and I'll probably end up registering my vote," said Jerry Eisenberg, a Gaithersburg professional. "But my main concern is that I don't help either candidate win by a large margin. Whoever wins, they ought to know that they don't have much support or approval from the people out here."

What made many of these citizens aganize over their choice this year, it seemed, was a yearning to choose a president in a kind of idealized way, the old-fashioned way that their neighbors gave up on a few elections ago. They wanted to find a way to believe in a candidate, to link him to their own hopes for the country or their deepest personal values. And so they kept waiting, lingering in the media market of the campaign, hoping for a speech or a phrase or a moment that touched them.

John Doskicz, the Hyattsville electronics entrepreneur whose heart has always been Democratic, should have known all along that he was going to vote for Carter. A reporter listening to him over the weeks could see clearly the parameters of the choice: Doskicz couldn't believe in Reagan, thought Anderson could never gain political support for his administration, and figured Carter might do better in a second term, with the advantage of experience.

But, week after week, Doskicz refused to commit himself to Carter. He insisted he was keeping an open mind. Carter, he thought, had been a poor, sometimes even terrible president, and Doskicz wanted, very simply, for something to happen to make him feel good about his vote.

And so, Doskicz watched the campaign closely. He devoured newspapers and magazines. He watched the debate, then stayed up late to watch it again -- with Jonn Anderson spliced in -- on the PBS network.

And then last Thursday, Doskicz gave up. His voice, which had screeched with exuberance when he debated his neighbors on the crisp Saturday afternoons of the fall, was quiet and low as he told of his choice. "Basically," he said, "I think it's just sad that this is the only choice I have. When I realized what the choice was after the debate the other day, I was turning over in my mind going in there and closing the curtain and not voting for either -- just skipping the presidential line."

He paused. "But I thought that would be an exercise in futility -- or more of an exercise in futility than choosing one of them. So I've got to go with which one I'm more comfortable with, and I'm just more comfortable with Carter."

In effect, Doskicz never made a choice -- he just collapsed into what was comfortable. In a similar way, Dr. Charles Betsey, who deeply dislikes Reagan, was almost convinced by last Tuesday that the only way to stop the Republican was to vote for Carter. So he sat down to watch the debate, he said, "hoping that something would come out of it that would help me decide Carter wasn't so bad."

But nothing happened. "He didn't show any vision or leadership as far as I could see. That's what I would have needed from him. He's still the articulate engineer, but clearly that is not enough to be president." And so, Betsey is still undecided, and has turned to the random numbers of polls to make his choice for him. "If it's too close, I might vote for Carter," he said, rather than Anderson.

Then there was Arthur Fox, a Prince George's businessman and lifelong Democrat who started the autumn leaning to Reagan, but hoping that Carter would say or do something that would persuade him to stay with his party. "If he does something to assert himself in foreign policy, or maybe if he can bring the hostages home, I could vote for him," Fox said in late September. "I'm ingrained in being a Democrat."

After the debate, Fox realized that he was going to vote for Reagan, "mainly because my business, which is connected to the steel industry and the auto industry, is down." He's not very happy with Reagan but still, it seems to him now that Carter probably couldn't have done anything to change his vote, after all. Perhaps it was just that he didn't want to spend the whole fall living with a decision for Reagan.

The "Anderson factor" emerges as the most poignant afterthought of the election for more than half of these Marylanders. Only three have decided to vote for him, but six others -- well over half of the group -- say they wish his candidacy had materialized as a threat to the major party nominees.

Listen to Myron Pauley, a retired Glen Echo architect who leaning toward Reagan but still considering Carter over the weekend: "I think Anderson comes over the best of all. But I feel he's not a factor. If I vote for him, I feel I'd do just as well not to vote."

If so many voters thought highly of Anderson, why did his campaign fizzle? Many of these Marylanders tends to answer that question for themselves as soon as they had asked it.

"I realized that I was hoping for some kind of savior," said Elizabeth Wright, a 29-year-old Gaithersburg schoolteacher who was undecided between Carter and Anderson until late last month." And based on what I do know about John Anderson, he just wasn't it." She will vote for the president on Tuesday, but not with enthussiasm.

Like Wright, all of the Marylanders who considered voting for Anderson were Carter supporters in 1976. If Anderson had not run, they say they would not have been undecided for a moment between Carter and Reagan. Like him or not, they would have thrown their votes to the president to block a candidate whom they variously call "a menace," "a hawk," a lightweight," or "a terror."

But the Anderson presence warped the choice. With his liberal overtones and his willingness to take controversial stands on issues like abortion and a 50-cent gas tax, he seemed to be what Carter wasn't for voters like Charles and Dianne Betsey of Silver Spring, committed liberals who believed in Carter in 1976, but were severely disappointed in his performance.

These voters wanted to do two things at once: vote against Carter and against Reagan. Yet they were faced with polls that warned a vote for Anderson would, in the end, help elect Reagan. Was Anderson worth the risk of a Reagan presidency?

That was enough to pull Elizabeth Wright back to Carter, although she had already begun to lose interest in Anderson. It may be enough to pull Charles Betsey back, too, but he bridles at the thought that "if I vote for Carter, there's no way to distingish my vote from the people who are really in love with him."

This process of weighing the lesser of evils and weighing one poll against another has taken its toll on Jim Shaut, a Glen Echo home remodeler, who perhaps exemplifies best of all the warping effects of the Anderson candidacy. p

Shaut, whose main goal is to defeat Reagan, weighed Carter against Anderson and decided that the president is the better man. But, if the polls permit, he plans to vote for Anderson anyway. He explains it as almost an existential decision.

"There was this nagging question," he says. "Do you vote for who can do the best job or do you put all that aside and just try to make a tiny statement? I'm a registered Independent Voting for Anderson isn't really voting for Anderson. It's a vote hoping that maybe somebody a little stronger will see that there's support for a third party.

"I guess I really do want Carter to win, but I don't think he deserves my vote. I want him to win without me," he says. After a long silence and a sigh, he adds: "It's a helluva way to vote."

Cheryl Morrow and Dianne Betsey, well aware of the risks in voting for Anderson, plan to go ahead and do it anyway. They are liberals who feel Anderson deserves their support far more than Carter. But more than that, it is, simply put, a question of self-respect.

Betsey, a Silver Spring housewife, mother and tenant organizer, was still considering voting for Carter during an interview on Friday, when she suddenly realized that she couldn't bring herself to do it -- even if her vote were the one that elected Reagan.

"The more I try to talk myself into being reasonable -- telling myself I don't want Reagan to win -- the sicker I feel," she said. "I feel like I'm compromising myself the way Jimmy Carter Compromised himself for the last four years . . . . .

"I'd much rather vote for Anderson, watch Reagan win and then do whatever I have to do for the next four years to keep Reagan muzzled. Maybe I'm not undecided after all.

"Yes, that's it. I have made up my mind. I'm sticking with Anderson. If they release the hostages tomorrow, I'm voting for Anderson. If they announce that unemployment has dropped 1.5 percent overnight, I'm voting for Anderson.

"I have to live with me. My vote is just one vote but it says who I am."