In the words of one local reporter, the candidates in Michigan's 6th Congressional District have a lot in common with other workers in this state that is suffering 15.9 percent unemployment: one candidate wants his old job back and the other is afraid of being laid off.

The close race between Republican Rep. Jim Dunn and former Democratic representative Bob Carr is a 1980 rematch -- and a nasty one -- in a newly drawn district that includes some of the worst concentrations of unemployment in the country. In Pontiac, for example, the jobless rate is about 28 percent.

Two years ago, Dunn, a wealthy construction company owner, defeated an overconfident Carr, who was first elected in the Watergate class of 1974, by 2,700 votes.

In that race, Dunn preached the gospel of Ronald Reagan: lower taxes, less government spending and fewer government regulations. Today he supports the philosophy, but shuns the word "Reaganomics." It has become, he said, a dirty word.

Instead, Dunn flashes his 58 percent support record for the president as a sign of his independence. His big billboards don't mention that he is a Republican, only that he is "tough, fair, independent."

Dunn acknowledged that if the only thing voters know about him and his opponent is that he is the Republican and Carr is the Democrat, then he likely will lose on Nov. 2.

Carr, who is running as much against Reagan as against Dunn, scoffed at his opponent's attempt to separate himself from the president, arguing that Dunn helped pass the key elements of Reagan's program.

"The issue is economics," he said, "not the Clinch River breeder. It's economic and taxes and spending priorities. The big votes. And on the big ones, Dunn's with Reagan."

The two candidates have been snarling at one another. During a television debate taped for airing this week, Dunn brought out placards to argue that more Michigan workers lost jobs in the last two years of Carr's tenure than in the first two years of Dunn and Reagan.

Carr angrily dismissed the figures as "props," then pulled out a tape recorder and held it up to the microphone to play Dunn's voice saying he supported Reagan and Budget Director David A. Stockman "99 percent of the time."

"That was a joke, Bob," Dunn said.

Carr is preaching the politics of gloom. "The fundamental shift in political attitudes here is that Michigan knows it's not coming back and people are frightened," he explained. "There's no hope in Michigan now."

Dunn counters with the politics of hope, arguing that the Reagan program is beginning to solve problems that Bob Carr, President Carter and the Democrats created.

"Pontiac didn't go down eight or nine months ago," he said. "It's been down five, six, seven years. The people don't have much faith in any of us [politicians]."

The campaign has a split personality. The two candidates are well known at the western end of the district around Lansing and Michigan State University. Carr is counting on help from the nuclear freeze movement to generate votes and also believes his endorsement by the National Organization for Women will boost him in the university area.

There are signs that Dunn is making headway in this Democratic area. John Sellman, a retired auto company employe, said he thinks Reagan's programs "stink," but plans to vote for Dunn over Carr.

But not all the voters seemed impressed by Dunn's deliberately vague campaign literature. One Pontiac woman, who asked not to be identified, said that while she might vote Republican in the governor's race, she leaned toward Carr.

"I don't like what Jim Dunn has done with his brochures," she said. "I think he's ashamed of being a Republican. If you're a Republican, I think you should take the responsibility."