Like a doleful doctor pronouncing a diagnosis of terminal cancer, Terry Bruce dropped his voice a pitch or two as soon as he recognized the problem. "You're from Washington," he said, with a sad shake of the head.

"I mean, it's not your fault or anything," Bruce added apologetically. "But you're from Washington, and that's, you know, the problem. Out here. . . you might as well be from another planet."

Bruce, an intense but amiable lawyer who is running for the Democratic nomination for Congress here in Illinois' 22nd District, was trying to explain to two eastern journalists why they would never fully understand the congressional campaign in the 22nd, a sprawling chunk of farmland in the South-eastern part of the state.

"You guys in Washington talk about issues." Bruce explained. "But when you campaign here, it's how you shake the hand, you know. I had a lady tell me, "I'm not going to vote for you 'cause you don't polish your shoes, you know. That's --sions. Whether you got them a deer permit and all that jazz, and how you look."

With just two weeks to go before the primary election, all the candidates in the wide open campaign for Congress here have discovered a disconcerting fact of life: "The issues" -- or, more precisely, what Washington would call The Issues --are not at issue.

The unexpected announcement last fall that George Shipley, a Democrat who represented the district in Congress for 20 years, would not seek reelection in 1978 drew four Democrats and three Republicans into the battle for the 22nd's seat.

The Absence of "issues" has posed a dilemma for all seven campaigners. They feel obliged to express their views on national affairs. To convince the voters they are capable of serving in Congress, But when they do the voters seems to lose interest.

"It's difficult in the primary to really find issues," agrees Don Watson, Rep. Shipley's chief aide, who is Terry Bruce's main contender for the Democratic nomination. "You're talking somewhere, and you say, now on this labor bill. . .' and you can kind of see they aren't listening."

This is not to say that the people of the 22nd are ignorant of Washington issues. They watch the evening news are regularly as city dwellers and the questions they ask a visitor -- "Is that Andrew Young running for President?" "Does Califano let his wife smoke?" -- reveal an insightful awareness of national topics.

Nor could one accuse the district's 464,000 residents of apathy.

People here care, seriously care, about some things -- their families, their friends, their land. A sociologist who visited the district a few years ago reported that it is enormously important here "to be part of a social arrangement where there are certain justified assumptions about how people will deal with one another."

If the peaceful fabric of life here, emphasizing decency toward one another, began to tear, that would be an issue that would electrify the 22nd district. But the issues that electrify Washington are not of that caliber.

Gene Stunkel, a Danville businessman who is running hard for the Republican nomination, knew that before he entered the congressional campaign. But just to be sure, Stunkel commissioned a public opinion poll of the district's 21 counties. The results, tabulated county by county and issue by issue, told Stunkel what he already knew.

"The panama Canal?" Stunkel snorted recently, flipping a practiced hand through the pages of his pollster's findings. "Everybody in Washington's flapping his lip about the Panama Canal, right? Big deal.

"We asked 300 people about national problems, and you know how many mentioned the Panama Canal? Four of 'em. You think I'm going to waste my breath on the Panama Canal?"

Accordingly, the campaigns here emphasize the man, not the stand.

Those candidates who are already public figures say that gives them an advantage.

"People in a small town don't like to vote for somebody they don't know," Watson, the incumbent's local spokesman, said recently. "Now, if I go into Shelbyville, or Paris, or Pana, I feel like I've got an advantage, because most Democrats there already know me."

The political newcomers in the race, however, think the emphasis on character helps them.

"Way I look at it," says Dave Hill, a young dark-horse candidate for the Democratic nomination, "is that if I can meet enough people, so they like me personally, then they'll vote for me. . ."

Families, too, are important. Stunkel's poll showed that 63 percent of the voters prefer a candidate who has held some lower office, that 72 percent prefer one who has some knowledge of business, that 89 percent prefer one with "Christian habits." But 95 percent said they would like their congressman to be a family man.

Thus, those candidates who have families have taken them along on the campaign trail.

Despite the general deemphasis of issues, two of the hopefuls continue to purse what they call "issue-oriented" campaigns.

The issue man among the Democrats is Tim Thut (pronounced toot). But while Thut's campaign has drawn some attention, it has been almost totally negative. His positions on his key issues (he supports the Equal Right Amendment and government-funded abortions) are anathema to most people here.

On the GOP side Dan Crane, the Danville dentist who is the leader of the district's Reaganite bloc, never fails to drum into his audiences his strenously conservative -- indeed, almost libertarian -- views on "the concrete, gut issues," as he likes to call them.

Crane readily admits that not all the voters are interested in his stands, but he is not about to change tactics. The campaign is too good a pulpit for his political evangelizing.

And Crane has found that there is an advantage, albeit an indirect one, in discussing the issues, "Issues aren't half as important as getting your name in the paper," Crane said recently. "But the press will only go after you on issues. So I can get more media exposure than a guy who doesn't take any positions."

Whatever position they may or may not take, all the candidates here seem to agree on one point: regulation by the federal government has gotten way out of hand.

as candidates, in fact, the seven campaigners have learned that lesson first hand -- in their dealings with the Federal Election Commission.

Next: Getting, Spending, Reporting