ST. PETER, Minn. - If you want to find out why the D.C. voting rights amendment is in such trouble, visit a small town such as this one on the fertile plains of the Minnesota River Valley.

The good folks of St. Peter are not bigots, but they just don't see what's so sinister - as backers of the amendment have suggested - in being white, rural, conservative Republicans and protecting the interests that go with that.

I came to this prosperous college town of 8,500, some 65 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, not because it has any special claim as a microcosm of Middle America, but because it is as good a place as any to test sentiments about the amendment. A friend of mine, Dr. Robert Karsten, dean of Gustavus Adolphus College here, helped assemble 10 people - a lawyer, farmer, housewife, school principal, travel agent, secretary, banker, accountant, high school student and college student - to talk about the amendment.

While only a couple of them had even heard about the amendment, they all had a clear perception of Washington. From here, Washington is viewed as a city populated by powerful people, many of them high-salaried federal bureaucrats, which now seeks even more of a voice in the nation's affairs without becoming a state.

Backers of the nationwide drive in behalf of the amendment agree that if there is any chance that 38 state legislatures will ratify the resolution by the 1985 deadline, residents of the St. Peters of the country are going to have to be convinced that the "simple justice" to the issue overrides the narrower interests of race, region, philosophy and political party.

It won't be any easy job, as they have learned so far. Six states, including Minnesota, have ratified the resolution, but 10 others have rejected it, and more have been less than enthusiastic about it.

A recent Louis Harris poll indicated that most Americans favor the amendment. Polls also show that an overwhelming majority of Americans favor gun control, but that hasn't led to gun control legislation, partly because rural representatives exercise disproporationate power in many state legislatures. A question of form

At the start of the two-hour session around a table in the college president's dining room, many questions about the District had to be answered before any discussion could begin.

"Just out of curiosity," asked Robert Cope, travel agent and member of the town school board, "are most people who live in the District black?"

After the participants found about the city's population, politics, tax rate and home rule status, the talk quickly turned not to whether the city should have voting representation in Congress, but what form it should take. Even though they understood that the amendment is a take-it-or-leave-it proposal, the St. Peter residents dwelled on other approaches - statehood, representation in the House only and retrocession to Maryland.

"If this thing passed," argued Robert Schmitz, one of the town's nine lawyers - and a Catholic in an area dominated by Scandinavian Lutherans - "the people in Washington would have two votes, one by walking up the street and talking to any congressman, and their own."

Robert Meyer, a tall, handsome young man who owns a 1,200-acre grain and cattle farm, said, "I can't see why many people in the United States would have any interest in seeing this amendment go through. It's certainly not in the interest of the Republican Party."

Housewife Carol Menk objected. "Regardless of whether I agree with their politics or not, that's no reason for them not to be represented."

The participants eventually took sides, with opponents led by lawyer Schmitz and farmer Meyer and supporters by Menk and Gustavus Adolphus junior Tim Eiden.

"What most of us are saying," said David Vick, principal of the town's elementary school, "is that they have a right to representation. But they should go about it the way the rest of us did, through statehood. Either as their own state, or getting in with Virginia or Maryland."

Menk had introduced herself as "just a housewife," but Schmitz, laughing, warned, "Watch out of her."

It was soon apparent that Menk was among the best informed of the townspeople on the issue. She recalled that for 17 years, this second congressional district in south central Minnesota - the birthplace of Vice President Mondale - was represented in Congress by Ancher Nelsen, a progressive Republican who was a member of the House District Committee and a booster of home rule had been favored for many years by the League of Women Voters, of which she is a member. To which Schmitz chided, "What's the League of Women Voters, Carol?"

Banker Sam Gault recalled visiting Washington and finding it "a lovely city." Pointing to the reporter, Gault added, "While I never noticed any crime at all, your newspaper prints a minute-by-minute crime calendar on the front page. Unbelievable. It scares you to death."

"They tell you to stay off the street after dark," said Schmitz.

"That's because the senators want to chase all the women," chuckled Cope.

"Not all the senators," corrected Schmitz. "But maybe some of the representatives too." A matter of cost

Settling into serious conversation, Schmitz said, "Coming from a rural state, I certainly don't see how this idea is in our interest. It just adds two more urban senators and a congressman. We have a hard enough time now holding our own."

Cope, a retired professor, said the extra members of Congress "would be another cost item." But he said he could see "how the local government would have need for someone to go to" at the federal level. Even with voting representation, "wouldn't the government still maintain its veto [over the budget]?" asked Liz Sietsema, a secretary.

"Theoretically, everyone should have representation," Schmitz said. "However, practically speaking, almost everyone who lives in Washington has a lot more authority, power and ability to contact the ruling powers than we do in Minnesota, living so far away."

Vick, the principal, was not sure "what they think they will gain. They still have committees in both houses to watch out for their benefit."

Menk countered that "it appears it would be the other way around. The government is the one that wants the committees." District residents "would like to be rid of them, but as long as that city represents the entire country - welcoming diplomats and so on - we've got to make sure it's run the way we want. I can't imagine Congress ever giving up that power. This is our face to the rest of the world."

Anne Karsten, 16, a high school sophomore, added, "I don't see why they shouldn't have representation. I don't think that would make that big of a change in Congress just to add two senators and one congressman."

Concerning District committees, Eiden, a junior from Brainerd, Minn., questioned "how much clout they have. My first priority if I'm a congressman from Minnesota is certainly not going to be the District of Columbia. If it comes down to deciding between D.C. and Minneapolis, or St. Peter or Mankato, I know where my vote's going."

Schmitz then suggested that "if they have to vote, they can go three miles in either direction [to Maryland or Virginia]."

"No, they can't," corrected Menk. "You have to vote where you live."

Schmitz went on, "They have considerably more representation per acre than anyone else."

"Bob," responded Menk, barely hiding her sarcasm, "don't we have one-person, one-vote, or is that just in Minnesota?"

"Not in the Senate," Schmitz came back. "And that one-man, one-vote, that's the reason we keep losing representatives to California."

Gault added, "I'm against Rhode Island having two senators right now, even though I know the Constitution says it. That's nuts."

Helen Carter, an accountant, decided it would be "unnatural for an all-urban district" to have two senators. Who pays the bills?

Gault, who runs one of the two banks in town, wanted to know whether the District "has any bonds or debts, or does the federal government pay all the bills?"

Told that the city government incurs debt, but borrows directly from the federal treasury instead of on the open bond market, Gault chuckled, "I'm glad we're not denying them the privilege of knowing what debt is." But he was relieved to known that "Washington's not in the same shape as Cleveland."

Meyer acknowledged that "the federal government has an obligation to maintain part of the city. It wouldn't be fair to load all that onto the District."

But he was certain a better solution could be found than the proposed amendment. Perhaps retrocession is the answer, he mused. "Everything is set up for those people to be part of Maryland."

Principal Vick interjected, "I had the privilege to live in Baltimore for a few years when I was in the service. They tend to be very isolated, a narrow-minded group of people. Nothing would be better than a little competition. It would be good for Baltimore to share the benefits and problems of another big city."

But Menk warned that "then you'd have Maryland running Washington, a city which is important to us all. It shouldn't be involved in the politcs of any state."

Either retrocession or statehood "would be a slap in the face to the original concept," said Eiden. "Congress didn't want the capital to be in a state or they would have put it in New York or Pennsylvania."

Okay, said Meyer, who also conceded that as it now stands, D.C. residents may have a valid squawk about taxation without representation.

But if the amendment is ratified as proposed, Meyer is worried that Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and other territories also would seek representation in Congress without also seeking statehood.

Recognizing, however, that D.C. residents pay federal taxes and people who live in the territores don't Meyer added, "Maybe we just ought to allow them not to pay taxes and leave Congress the way it is."

Cope, the travel agent, concluded that "They'll have a tough time getting this. When you get down to it, just like in North Dakota [where the legislature overwhelmingly rejected ratification] everyone in the Midwest will say, 'Hey, we're rural, they're urban. We're just going to see to lose the tie votes'" if this is ratified.

"I think the black-white issue isn't important," Gault said. "It's the eastern philosophy against the western philosophy. The more we get eastern senators, the worse off we are."

"The timing isn't good," added Eiden. "Many legislators are bitter from the ERA battle. It might have been better to hold off for 10 years."

Although many leading Republican senators voted in favor of the amendment, Meyer said, "all they were saying is, 'We're sending this to the states. Let them handle it.' If their votes had actually made the decision, it would have been much more partisan." CAPTION: Picture 1, Liz Sietsema; Picture 2, Helen Carter; Picture 3, Robert Meyer; Picture 4, Sam Gault; Picture 5, Tim Eiden; Picture 6, Anne Kartsen; Picture 7, David Vick