My friend Mildred Holcomb of St. Peter, Minn., gives us as usual, the wisest word from the Midwest. She's ready, she says, for big surprises still ahead in the political season. "No one is enthused about the front-runners," she adds. "Reagan is cheap. Carter is good-hearted but lacks the spark. I hope the convention deadlocks and they will choose someone else. There is no hope for theRepublicans -- they will only choose Reagan. They are the die-hard Nixon voters who would like to vote for Nixon again."

It's been a late spring here along the lake-front. The other day women were wearing fur coats while walking down Michigan Avenue, and they were talking about snow in the north. To a casual observer, the Midwest seems entirely preoccupied with itself: here in Chicago prosperity appears to abound and the kind of issue that stirs chance conversation turns over plans to tear down the elevated train tracks along Wabash Avenue. "It won't be Chicago anymore if they do that," the cab driver says, as he maneuvers through the morning rush-hour traffic.

But here, no less than in New York a week before, these surface impressions are misleading. When you talk to people at greater length, the same sorts of concerns emerge.

The cab driver, it turns out, has been on the job only three days; he's a steel worker who was forced on the streets when his plant shut down recently. aHe'll tell you knowledgeably about the state of U.S. steel production and how much we're importing from Germany.

The businessman talks about a profit squeeze and the high cost of money; then, more personally, he launches into a melancholy lament about the world his children will inherit. At least hewas able to buy a home for them to grow up in, he says. They may never have that opportunity.

The professor talks about his colleagues nervously watching rising college prices and declining enrollments; he wonders what he might do if times get really rough.

And through their words runs an unusual amount of anxious interest in the political future. People you meet appear to be paying more serious attention to the country's presidential prospects than at any time in years. They certainly are not apathetic, even if they are uncertain about how -- or if -- they might vote next fall. Like Mildred Holcomb, they seem singularly unenthused about the front-runners.

In the latest Gallup Poll, John Anderson was tested as a theoretical independent candidate in a three-way race with Carter and Reagan. The result, George Gallup reports, "shows surprisng strength" for Anderson.

"anderson wins the support of 21 percent of registered voters to 39 percent for Carter and 34 for Reagan. In this three-way test, Anderson draws as much support from registered Democrats as from registered Republicans. And among registerd voters who classifythemselves as political independents, Anderson is in second place, with 30 percent of the independent vote, compared to 36 percent for Reagan and 26 percent for Carter."

Gallup says Anderson's current support among all registered voters is about the same as the 22 percent vote George Wallace received in a three-way test election against Nixon and HubertHumphrey exactly eight years ago before Wallace was shot. And, he adds:

"The Anderson vote in the latest survey and Wallace's standing in 1972 exceed any preconvention third-party support in the Gallup Poll's 45 years of polling experience."

That survey came at a critical momentfor John Anderson. He has been deliberating whether to make the decision to run as an independent presidential candidate, or to concede that such an effort would be fruitless. The recent time he took away from the campaign in California did not resolve his dilemma; soon he will be getting away again to give more thought to his decision.

Those around him who want him to makesuch a move are citing the Gallup results as persuasive evidence of Anderson's prospects. Gallup "proves" his independent candidacy would not, as has been widely argued, insure a Reagan victory by draining off support from Carter. Anderson draws equal strength from both of them. And,it's further said, Gallup shows Anderson powerful enough politically tobe more than another spoiler candidate. Anderson stands close enough even to win, particularly in such an extrordinarily changeable political year.

That is not the view of others even closer to Anderson. They fear an independent Anderson race could be doomed from the outset, not so much by public feelings about him, but by the anticpated reaction of the press. Anderson, in this thinking, would be written off immediately as a hopeless candidate with no prospects of success -- a prophecy that could become, of course, self-fulfilling if repeated collectively enough in the press.

Anderson himself appears genuinely torn by the decision he will have to make. He knows it is fateful, and quite possiibly could determine who next will occupy the White House.

His fellow Midwesterner.Mildred Holcomb, who usually has her finger so surely on the public pulse, isn't of much help in charting Anderson's future. She was, she said, sitting in her swivel chair by the window looking out over the Minnesota Valley during an April snowstorm.

"We rejoice in April snow," she says. "Winter snow is small and hard and mean. April snow comes down in big juicy flakes carrying with it rich vitamins from the springtime air it passes through and insures a bountiful crop for the coming year."

She's not certain about Anderson, but she does offer this thought. Her son has gone all-out for Anderson. "He feels we need a Swede in the White House."