Just outside Akron, Ohio, in the shadow of the Midwest's darkened factories, Democratic Rep. John F. Seiberling goes home to a town meeting and attacks President Reagan's economic policies. Seiberling's constituents, however, see other villains -- Japanese imports, environmental controls and industrial stagnation -- that predate Reagan.
Down in the textile and farm towns of western Georgia, Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich, who has taken a front-line position on taxes and spending, first in support and then in defiance of Reagan, has every reason to expect that these subjects will be uppermost in his neighbors' minds. But he gets his biggest stack of mail on drunk driving.
Up in the gently rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin, Republican Rep. Steven Gunderson, who was swept into Congress in the Reagan landslide two years ago and is called a "Reagan robot" by the Democrats, has been putting some distance between himself and his president, running largely on local issues. Among other things, he is touting himself as "a national spokesman" for recreational interests on the Mississippi River.
Out in southern California, Democratic Rep. George E. Brown Jr. finds an angry, anti-Reagan tide running among voters at a town meeting in Fontana, hard-hit by continuing layoffs at the big Kaiser Steel plant. But he has also found an undercurrent of support for the president, even among working-class Democrats, and Brown's criticism of Reagan is respectful.
Brown says his people still see Reagan as "the guy with the white hat on the white horse." Adds Brown: "They can't believe that he is doing something that is hurting them."
These snapshots of a political summer indicate that the Nov. 2 midterm congressional election will not necessarily turn out to be a national referendum on Reagan and his economic program, about which many voters--and many candidates as well--are still quite ambivalent.
Seven congressmen accompanied by Washington Post reporters as they campaigned during the late-summer congressional recess in constituencies scattered across the country encountered no single overriding issue in their conversations with voters. When Congress returned from its August recess last year, its members were in a panic over voter complaints about surging interest rates, and thrashed about for months in search of a solution it could never find.
The congressmen accompanied by Post reporters found people who would accuse Reagan of bankrupting the country in one breath and then excuse him in the next breath on grounds no one could turn the economy around in two years. For everyone who has given up on him, there appear to be two or three more who will string along a while longer, although they are not sure how long.
Even some of Reagan's most ardent supporters say his programs have not worked, at least not yet. On the other hand, many of his strongest critics say they have seen enough presidents fail and want this one to succeed.
Issues that rank high on the Washington win-loss scorecard -- for example, how Reagan was able to get Congress to raise taxes only a year after getting it to cut them -- lack the appeal of more fundamental concerns like the future of an aging steel mill or the troubled Social Security system.
Fran Robillard, a retired teacher, spoke for many when she was discussing the tax increase with Rep. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.) at a recent Chamber of Commerce outing in Rutland, Vt. "It seems like we've been up and down with Reagan on this tax proposition," said Robillard, "and I can't figure out whether we came out ahead or not."
A postscript was added by Texan Lemoine Unger who turned out to hear Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex.) explain his break with Reagan on the tax bill last month. It may arguably have been the biggest increase in history, but "the thing to remember about this tax bill," said Unger, "is that it doesn't really affect me."
Jerome Bridges, a retired cabdriver, put it another way when he was visited by Rep. Harold Washington (D-Ill.) and a reporter at Gladys Luncheonette in a black Chicago neighborhood. "I don't like this talk about cutting back the Social Security. . . . Yes, I know something's got to give, but I don't want it to be me."
In light of all this, it is not surprising that most of the lawmakers followed by The Post, chosen to reflect a philosophical as well as geographic spread, were putting some distance -- but not too much -- between themselves and Reagan. Nor is it surprising that many of them were attempting to stake out issues that are not irretrievably tied to Reagan's fortunes and the national economy.
One reason is that, with the economic roller-coaster that Congress has ridden over the past two years, no one is willing to bet the campaign kitty on what the economy will be like on Nov. 2.
While there was some relief expressed at declining interest rates and the first signs of possible economic recovery, people from Bowdon, Ga., to Westby, Wis., were not seeing the results yet in their shops, offices and homes.
"People are leery, they're waiting," said a woman at the Hallmark Finance Co. in Bowdon. "People aren't spending money. High interest rates are killing us," said a man at the Dregne Hardware in Westby.
The pain may not be dispersed evenly across the country but it is clearly beginning to permeate areas that once seemed immune.
As might be expected, Harold Washington's largely black district in Chicago and John Seiberling's industrial-belt district around Akron were among the hardest hit. But hardship stretches across the Sun Belt, too, from Brown's southern California to the west central Texas home of Stenholm, where even the oil industry is suffering and an oil-field pipe company recently went bankrupt.
Republicans are nonetheless grateful for any bright spots they see. "The break in interest rates came at a really propitious time," said a relieved Gingrich. "The pain had reached a level where if you hadn't had any relief you'd have had real despair."
What is interesting is that Gingrich's district has probably been whipsawed less by the economy -- and by two years of Reagan-inspired budget cuts -- than those of the other six congressmen visited by The Post.