Staff writers David S. Broder, Haynes Johnson, Paul Taylor and Edward Walsh wrote this article based on their reporting in and around Greensboro, Lexington and Hay River, N.C.; Pittsburgh; St. Louis, and Long Beach, Calif. Political researcher Colette T. Rhoney contributed to this report. Richard M. Scammon of the Elections Research Center helped select the "ticket-splitting" precincts where voters were interviewed. These precincts were originally selected and visited a year ago for a similar report.

The moment looks bigger than the men.

That sums up the way many American voters approach the next presidential election. They're worried that the country may be facing a long-term economic slide, one that could lower their standard of living, and their children's.

They talk soberly of the need to deal with carry-over deficits and stiffer world trade competition. They speak hopefully of a new Soviet leader who presents opportunities for reducing the threat of nuclear war, but they fear he could deceive us.

And while they think that either of the two leading Republicans might fit plausibly in the Oval Office, they have yet to find the dynamic leader they believe the next four years will demand.

Musing about the field of candidates, Hal Routh, a Lexington, N.C., personnel manager, said, "It's scary . . . . I haven't seen much that impressed me."

The mood, as reflected in a Washington Post-ABC News poll and in grass-roots interviews by Washington Post reporters who revisited four areas of the country examined a year ago, is a combination of wariness, hopefulness and cynicism.

None of the sentiments is surprising, considering what these voters have seen in the past 12 months. It was a year marked by the worst foreign policy debacle of the Reagan administration; yet it ended on a diplomatic high note as President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met to sign a nuclear-arms agreement.

It was a year in which most Americans remained prosperous and employment hit a record high, but in which a stock market plunge reinforced doubts about the underlying health of the economy and the level of national and personal debt.

"It's a time of uncertainty," said David Flick, a state parole agent in Penn Hills, Pa., expressing a common view. "I don't see any tragic times like the Great Depression, but there won't be big bucks made either . . . . My parents always thought everybody would keep moving up. But it's not that way any more. It's kind of leveled

off . . . and someone is going to have to pay the bills for those deficits: us or our kids."

A year ago in these same communities, we met many voters who were savoring the good times of the Reagan economic boom but waiting for the other shoe to drop. Now, even more express concern that national and international events seem to be slipping out of control.

The Post-ABC News poll found Americans divided in their view of the future. Asked about the "overall quality of life" they expect in 15 years, one-third said better, one-third said worse and one-third, about the same. Combined with the 47 percent who said in reply to another question the nation is "seriously off on the wrong path," that is hardly a reflection of the traditional American optimism.

Two big events in the last months of the year tugged voters in different directions.

The stock market collapse intensified underlying anxieties about the economic future. For every voter who was more optimistic about the economy and domestic conditions at year's end than he had been last January, two were more pessimistic, the poll found.

But in the wake of the U.S.-Soviet summit, the reverse was true when it came to world affairs. More than twice as many feel prospects for peace have improved as think they have worsened.

Reporters heard the same polar emotions expressed in their door-to-door interviews in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Missouri and California, and often from the same person. In St. Louis, for instance, Jean Prickett, a registered nurse, said she was more optimistic about world affairs now. Her reason: "{President} Reagan seems a little more pragmatic about the Soviets and he agreed to the treaty."

At the same time, she said she was less optimistic about the economy. The reason: "The high budget deficits, the stock market crash and the fact that Congress is unable to pass a real budget."

What voters are seeking, if the interviews and polling results are a sign, is strong presidential leadership that can seize a moment such as the summit and achieve a more hopeful new direction in national policy. They would like to see the same kind of strength applied to domestic problems, especially in getting the economy under control.

Historically, such concerns fuel a typical American political reaction: turning out the insiders.

But favorable as this landscape may look to the Democrats, these interviews found only two candidates who come at all close to fitting the voters' prescription for the next president: Republicans George Bush and Sen. Robert J. Dole (Kan.).

The face-to-face interviews with voters left a very different impression from The Post-ABC News poll finding that, in the abstract, if the election were held today, those polled favored the Democrats by 48 to 33 percent.

That was a reversal from similar poll findings taken just before the Oct. 19 stock market plunge. Then, voters said they favored a Republican candidate over a Democrat by 46 to 43 percent.

But the voters we met were not enthusiastic about most of the Democratic presidential choices and scoffed at the reentry into the race of former senator Gary Hart (Colo.).

When these voters think about the type of president it will take to meet the challenges facing the country, they are clear about what they want and don't want. Strength, trust and experience are the points by which they triangulate their judgments on the candidates.

Mary Ellen Leymeyer, a senior at St. Louis University, spoke for many when she said, "I think it's going to take someone with great strength and political support . . . someone who has a lot of support behind him from Congress . . . . We're going to have to have belt-tightening. There's going to be some austerity needed. To get things under control you've got to have somebody who's got strength to put it through . . . . "

Tim Sloan, a convenience store owner in Haw River, N.C., said, "We need some hard-nosed politicians. What I'm talking about is one that's fair with people, gets things done and does away with all the bureaucracy and red tape."

"We could use a guy like Harry Truman," said Jack Wilson, a North Long Beach, Calif., truck driver, "someone who takes an honest approach . . . . "

The terms of the "trust" equation require that the next president be honest with the voters and honestly try to understand their needs. Reagan is no longer the paragon of those virtures, although his reputation for forcefulness survives in diminished form the widespread perception that age has made some inroads. Few are as harsh as Ted Colcombe, a Penn Hills, Pa., postal worker, who said, "The man is an actor. He's faked his way through the last eight years." But the Iran-contra affair has had a lasting effect on the president's reputation. It has diminished his credibility and increased the sense he is out of touch, not just with his job, but with the terms of everyday life for many Americans.

Marilyn Dale, a North Long Beach hospital secretary, said, "I'm very disillusioned with what Reagan has done to the old people . . . . I don't believe in some of the bleeding-heart issues, but I just don't like that there are a lot of people on drugs and out on the streets, homeless . . . . "

Still, Reagan remains a positive yardstick for many more voters than his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. Carter's name comes up often, and always as a cautionary example. "You need to have experience," said Jim Reavis, a Haw River Democrat who voted twice for Reagan. "Jimmy Carter proved that. He didn't have the experience he needed and as far as I'm concerned, he was a failure."

"Jimmy Carter got the whole country in trouble," agreed Penn Hills machinist Dominic Monfredi, another Democrat.

Pressed for an example of the type of president they would like to see, Monfredi and many others reached for the same model: John F. Kennedy, "a strong person who would work for the middle {class} man," in Monfredi's phrase.

As in 1960, these voters see the task facing the successor to a two-term Republican president as managing a dangerous but far from hopeless world situation and reviving what they fear may be a declining domestic economy.

The Reagan-Gorbachev summit conference and the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty made the world look a little less dangerous to these voters. Gorbachev made a strongly favorable impression during his Washington visit.

"Gorbachev is kind of like our Kennedy was," said Reavis in Haw River. "He's young. He's aggressive. He gives the impression he wants to move in the right direction."

Still, for all the good feelings generated by the summit, there is no sense of euphoria about an end to the nuclear arms race. While the INF Treaty enjoys broad support, it was the mere fact that Soviets and Americans were talking directly to each other that struck the most responsive chord among the voters.

"{The summit} didn't accomplish as as much as I would have liked to see, but it's a step in the right direction," said Richard Houghtelin, a computer technician and Republican, in Penn Hills. "Any time people talk, it can't be bad."

Leymeyer, the St. Louis University senior, said:

"It has the potential for being very worthwhile, very wonderful. It depends on what we are going to do now. We're actually communicating with one another and that's wonderful, but what are we going to do with it now that we have it. Yes, this is a great first step, but . . . . "

Nor did Gorbachev's charm diminish the deep distrust toward the Soviets that was expressed even by voters who applaud the summit and hope the Senate approves the treaty.

"I think the treaty was good, but there seems to be too much trust in Gorbachev," said Jim McAfee, a conservative Republican and strong Reagan supporter from Lexington, N.C. "I think we need to go ahead with these treaties, but at the same time be very, very cautious because they {the Soviets} are known to use any tactics at all. They're just liars to the core."

While the voters may be encouraged by the state of U.S.-Soviet relations, they remain disquieted by other aspects of world affairs. Some of this unease is rooted in the continuing, televised spectacle of violence, from the Persian Gulf to Central America.

"There's more violence than I can ever remember," Monfredi said. "All these small countries are pulling on our coattails, blowing up planes. These small countries are causing more problems than Russia."

There is also a clear sense that the United States is continuing to lose its competitive edge in the world economy. In North Long Beach, Milton Critchfield, a retired executive of the Boy Scouts of America, recalled serving as a Marine in Japan.

"I made friends there and have great sympathy for them," he said. "But I think now they're stomping on us, them and the Germans. We've got to do something about that."

But not all of the country's problems in the international economy are seen as the result of unfair trade practices. In the textile-producing region of North Carolina, which is bouncing back after being battered by foreign competition, Sloan and his wife, Anita, praised the Japanese management of a nearby automobile plant.

"The Japanese try to make their workers a family, and here it seems like everybody is fighting against everybody," Anita Sloan said.

Helen Maness, a Democrat who twice voted for Reagan, said this of the American-owned textile plants near her home in Haw River:

"Everyone of them has 'Crafted with pride' and you walk into any one of them and they'll tell you, 'Hurry, get production and the heck with crafted with pride.' I think it's just a slogan."

In St. Louis, Prickett added: "I think overall we've sort of gone over the peak as a national power and that we're on the downside of the slope now . . . . I don't know who's going to take it over -- Japan, maybe China."

These voters have a decidedly mixed view of the domestic economy. Many are satisfied with their economic situations, but are deeply disturbed by the phenomenon of homeless Americans wandering the streets. And if the near-term economic outlook seems reasonable, there is far more pessimism about longer-term economic prospects following the October stock market collapse.

"I think the balloon burst, at least momentarily," said Frank Smith, a McDonnell Douglas executive in St. Louis who voted for Democrat Walter F. Mondale in 1984. "I think we're on a slippery slope. The stock market crash exposed a weakness in the entire economic structure."

Even among voters who were not personally affected by the stock market, the October crash and the volatility that has followed deepened the sense that the country has been overspending for years, storing up trouble in the future. In terms of domestic political issues, it spotlighted the underlying problem of the federal budget deficit, a topic that came up repeatedly.

Asked about the stock market, Hal Routh, the personnel manager for a Lexington, N.C., picture-frame manufacturing firm and registered Democrat who voted for Reagan, replied: "I'm more concerned about the deficit. The government is the only company that can keep on spending money. It's got to come to an end . . . . We still have it good, but it's not going to be as good. It's hard for a young person to buy a house. I think the young people are going to have it tougher."

These fears of long-run trouble and a declining standard of living are widely shared and would seem made to order for a political change to Democratic control of the White House in next year's election. But there is a problem for the Democratic candidates. With the exception of Hart and Jesse L. Jackson, their field of presidential hopefuls remains a blur to the voters. The two best-known contenders -- recognized for long government experience that voters see as a key quality in dealing with the country's accumulated problems -- are Republicans Bush and Dole.

The voters on the candidates: Vice President Bush

A year ago, when we asked voters in these precincts to play a word-association game with Bush, they tended to respond with doubts about his strength. "Wimp" was the brickbat of choice.

Now, while those concerns still occasionally crop up, voters are more inclined to pay tribute to Bush's experience and steadiness. It may be that they are beginning to condition themselves to think of him as their next president and, as a result, to take a more benevolent view.

"I'd vote for George," said Gloria Flick, a Penn Hills, Pa., hospital billing clerk. "He's very sure of himself. And he has a lot of experience and some competence."

"He's quiet, a plodder. He's steady, keeps going. I wouldn't be opposed to him," said Karen Adelseck, a North Long Beach schoolteacher.

"He's got a lot of contacts, he knows what's happening," said Wendell Pickrel, a North Long Beach construction worker. Pickrel expressed a deep sense of outrage over the Iran-contra affair but exempted Bush from criticism. "I'm sure he knew about it, and he's just looking out for himself. But I can't blame him. When the boss makes a mistake, I'm not going to jump in his face and say, 'Hey, you were wrong, wrong, wrong.' Why should he take the rap, especially when he knew he was going to run for president."

An exchange between Milton Critchfield, and his wife, Mary, captured the competing views of Bush.

Him: "I like him. He's got more integrity than most."

Her: "Do you think he's got enough gumption? He seems so wimpy."

Him: "That's a bum rap."

There was other raps, though. "Bush is a bozo," said Mark Brower, a North Long Beach computer programmer, and a Republican. "He can't talk straight. When he talks on an issue, I can't figure out what the hell he is saying."Minority Leader Dole

Not quite as many voters were as familiar with Dole as Bush. Those who were credited him experience, independence and leadership. They saw his personality as having a sharper, more aggressive edge to it. As with Bush, almost no one talks of Dole in terms of an ideology. Rather, they see him as someone who gets things done. He was a particular favorite in St. Louis, where his midwestern roots gave him a cultural affinity with voters that Bush conspicuously lacked.

From written responses to a questionnaire at the St. Louis focus group came the following on Dole:

"Has potential . . . capable . . . a little bit of a street fighter . . . fake . . . strong leadership quality . . . . Mrs. {Elizabeth Hanford} Dole should be running."

In Penn Hills, David Nelson, an engineer, said: "I'm independent and I'm inclined to vote for Dole. He has that American spirit. He's a World War II vet. He's a calm individual. He hasn't agreed with everything Reagan has done . . . . "

Said Edwin Hoover, a Penn Hills Republican: "He seems good. He made a boo-boo when he came out pretty negative on the treaty, but now he's trying to change."Pat Robertson

Of all the candidates of both parties, the former television evangelist drew the most consistently negative reaction. The separation of church and state was raised by voter after voter. "No way! No preachers," said Thomas Kelly of Penn Hills. "The founders were right: Let's not mix politics with religion," said Ron Williams of North Long Beach.

Even voters who see the need for Christian values in the White House expressed explicit disapproval of Robertson seeking that office. "The next president ought to be a Christian regardless of who he is," said Woodrow Miles, a retired maintenance worker. Asked about Robertson, he said: "I don't approve of him. He's getting into politics. He can't be much of a Christian man."Other Republicans

No one else in the GOP field makes a strong impression. Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) is best known as a football player and as a conservative, but isn't deemed presidential. Former secretary of state Alexander M. Haig Jr. continues to be pigeonholed as a military man. Former Delaware governor Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV is known, if at all, for the paint and chemical company his ancestors founded. "I'm surprised he's on your list," said Dolores Kelly of Penn Hills. "I hadn't heard he was running. He sure keeps it quiet."Jesse Jackson

Jackson gets rapped for being "opportunistic," "all talk and no action," "a meddler in foreign policy," "a radical." "He has a tendency to project himself into an area, just to get noticed," said Mary Critchfield of North Long Beach.

He gets praised for his eloquence, his caring, his common sense. "Of all the politicians in the world, he's the one I'd like to meet," said Nelson, an engineer. "He gives great speeches, and he seems very bright."

In one way or another, almost everyone makes the same observation: "The country isn't ready for a black president," said Adelseck, the teacher.Gary Hart

The St. Louis focus group session was held the night after Hart got back into the Democratic race, and the mention of his name drew ridicule and outrage. Not a single person spoke up for him. "I resent him," said Ida West, a physical therapist. "He's treating the whole political process with contempt."

"A candidate for president has to be more than just ideas," said Prickett. "We have to have someone that has . . . the nation's trust." Other comments from around the table: "Fake," "liar," "Jack Kennedy," "cheat," "joke."

But the precinct interviews, conducted before Hart got back in, also show that by running an antimedia campaign, he can tap a vein of public support.

"I thought Hart was great," said Maxine Rosique, a North Long Beach mother of two. "Unfortunately, the press got hold of what he'd done and blew it up and bingo, he was gone. You're talking about a man's private life. There was no reason for that to get out. What did it have to do with being president?"

"What they do behind closed doors doesn't make any difference," said Jean Borja, a North Long Beach administrative assistant.Other Democrats

Impressions range from sketchy to nonexistent. Sen. Paul Simon (Ill.) is known for his bow-tie, voice, "intellectualism" and "common sense." Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis comes across as aggressive, competent, someone who helped turn around his state's economy. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (Tenn.) and former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt haven't yet made it onto the voters' radar screen.

In all the precincts, there was some volunteered interest in New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo getting into the race, usually expressed in a tone of disparagement toward the others.

"From what little I've heard," said Mildred Fields, a Lexington, N.C., retired textile worker, "I don't like them. It seems to me we could have somebody better."

That comment, as much as any, summarizes the Democrats' dilemma as the campaign year approaches: Voters don't know much about them, and what they do know they often don't like.