CHICAGO -- Somber and cynical, the voters of Illinois, like their counterparts across America, face the November election with grave concerns about the country's future and equally grave doubts that politics and politicians offer them much hope.

Lon Feia, 33, owner of a small company that makes environmental filters, spoke for many when he said, "We have so many serious problems, not just in the Persian Gulf but here at home. The condition of the state is getting worse. The education system is going steadily downhill. My property taxes doubled last year. And yet," he said, if you judge by the contents of the campaigns, "we seem more concerned about frivolous issues."

A national poll by The Washington Post and ABC News this month found 60 percent of Americans saying that they think things in this country have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track -- a sharp increase in that measurement of pessimism since the start of the year. The poll also found a powerful alienation from government, with 65 percent saying that they agree with the statement that public officials don't "care much what people like me think."

That pessimism and cynicism create the environment in which the voters of this state will elect a governor and senator and fill many lower offices this November. Illinois is as good a political laboratory as one can find. It is at the crossroads of the country, not only geographically but ideologically -- a classic "swing state" that has mirrored the nation's politics by backing the winning presidential candidate in all but two elections in this century.

The top candidates -- Sen. Paul Simon (D) and his challenger, Rep. Lynn Martin (R), and the gubernatorial rivals, Attorney General Neil F. Hartigan (D) and Secretary of State Jim Edgar (R) -- are all seasoned politicians. They, like their counterparts across the country, also stand at a crossroads at the start of the fall campaign. They face the daunting task of defending their records, defining their policies and overcoming the public distrust of all politicians. Or -- through negative campaign tactics that have become all but universal in American politics -- they can attempt to focus that distrust on their opponents and deflect it from themselves.

Interviews in several parts of the state earlier this month confirmed that in Illinois as elsewhere, pocketbook issues are uppermost on people's minds this fall. Nationally, only illegal drugs and the threat of war in the Persian Gulf are ranked by voters in the poll as issues of as much importance as the state of the economy, the budget deficit and taxes.

Nationally, pessimism about the economy is growing, with 64 percent of those polled saying it is getting worse. Unemployment here is almost 1 full percentage point above the national average. Property taxes have gone up sharply in many communities and the Democratic-controlled legislature this year voted a temporary income-tax surtax requested by retiring Republican Gov. James R. Thompson. The future of that tax is a central issue in the gubernatorial race, much as the prospect of program cuts and tax hikes in the federal budget are certain to inflame the senatorial contest between Simon and Martin.

But something more is at stake in the 1990 elections than the identity and party affiliation of the winners and losers. Voters view the campaigns themselves as a test of whether the politicians will level with them. And they are not hopeful. Anthi Paschos, 29, of the suburb of Skokie, the Greek-born wife of a waiter, said: "Campaigns are completely TV. Everyone lies. I want them to be more truthful. It is different in Europe. Politicians in Greece have to solve problems, or they are out." 'People Need a Hand Up'

While many voters express her cynicism and her wish for clear-cut alternatives and decisive results, they often appear conflicted themselves.

Many voice a strong belief in the need to improve education, to rebuild roads and to protect the environment -- a willingness to support government activism that contrasts sharply with the anti-government rhetoric so popular a decade ago.

"When I grew up, there were summer jobs available for teenagers, and that helped me move in the right direction," said Carlean Askew, a Chicago Blue Cross hearing officer. "I don't see that kind of government program happening now."

Many say the spending priorities are wrong -- that more needs to be done at home. Wilma McBee, 57, an account manager at a medical center in Park Forest, complained that while her daughter was forced to "wipe out her savings" to satisfy the federal tax collectors, President Bush "forgives Egypt's $7 billion debt. It amazes me that in a country like this, we can't fund our social programs. The federal government has sent off money in the wrong direction."

At the same time, however, anger and discontent over waste in government programs -- especially welfare programs -- remain powerful, constraining liberal impulses and reinforcing electoral cynicism.

This voter ambivalence was perhaps best expressed by Beryl Fredell and her daughter, June, standing in front of their Peoria home.

"I am thankful my mother has Social Security," Beryl Fredell said. "She's entitled to food stamps but she won't take them, she's too proud. . . . She had to have both knees replaced. Public aid picked up everything. . . . She said 'I can't afford them {the knee replacements}.' The doctor said, 'They can't take them away from you once I put them in there.' "

June Fredell, a schoolteacher, then said: "I think we have to be willing to give to things like that. But there are too many people on the {welfare} rolls who shouldn't be there. Give them a goal -- in a year, you will have a job."

Beryl Fredell agreed: "There are too many people on the rolls, too many multiple babies. The first is a mistake. The second is their fault. If they are able to work, some kind of job should be found for them."

The misgivings about domestic spending generally and welfare specifically -- "we need to get back to basics, people need a hand up, not handouts," said Ross Eric in suburban Chicago -- weaken liberal momentum. Distrust of the government's ability to address social concerns serves to counteract the apparently growing belief -- supported by government data -- that the rich have advanced while the income of the middle class has stagnated.

Ray Maczko, a 53-year-old engineer in Burbank, west of Chicago, voiced this sense of middle-class pressure from the top and the bottom:

"It's the rich and the poor -- getting rid of the middle class. More of the middle class has become lower class. Our government doesn't worry about the middle class, the people who keep this country together."

If these various conflicts and cross-pressures were not adequate to cloud any picture a politican sought to develop of the electorate, another complaint that surfaced among a number of the white swing voters interviewed was of reverse discrimination.

"{My childrens'} future will definitely be harder for them," said Donna Parker, wife of a Chicago police officer. "The cost of living is one thing, and then as far as employment is concerned, you're not judged on your effort. A lot has to do with your color or sex. I think they'll face reverse discrimination." John Hedderman, a 31-year-old electrician who lives on the southwest side of Chicago, complained that employers "cater to blacks." Debbie Shehan, wife of a Peoria firefighter, said, "Sometimes it gets to be a turnaround where the white people are in the minority for jobs and things because they want a black quota, and I don't think that's fair." 'It's a Double System'

The one area where all these concerns develop some focus is in the broad and intense distrust of politicians.

"The worse thing we did was when we voted those {politicians} a full-time job. That's the worst thing we did," said James Van De Veer, the owner of a woodcarving shop in Washington, Ill. "Now it's not a single system, it's a double system. There is us and there is the politicians and they are a separate entity. They are not for us, they are not with us."

One of the bitterest complaints voiced repeatedly was the politicians' voting themselves pay raises. It's symptomatic of a government widely seen as profligate.

"There is so much waste. It's like a pyramid. One guy hires two and they hire four," said Rosemary Bialk in Chicago. "Politicians never seem to be doing what they should be doing. It doesn't matter who is in office. They just don't do what they promise."

This sense of pessimism and futility colors the way many of the voters look at such problems as the collapse of the savings and loan industry. Instead of placing specific responsiblity on one party or one group of politicians, many of the voters interviewed suggested that the collapse grew out of a corrupt system.

"Savings and loans? That's your old buddy system," said Patricia Shelton, a retired General Motors worker in Peoria.

At one extreme, Tina Humsley, who just quit her job now that she is pregnant with twins, said about the savings and loans: "I wouldn't say it was so much political as it just happened. . . . I don't really blame anyone." At the other extreme, Jean Rasler, 60, said in Greenville, a rural community 70 miles east of St. Louis, that "we shouldn't have to pay for the S&L crisis. It is the fault of a lot of big wheels and crooked people. Everyone involved in that mess should go to jail."

Public discontent with government translated in many cases to strong anti-tax viewpoints. But in some cases, particularly in Peoria and, to a certain extent, in the Chicago suburbs, an interesting pattern appeared to be emerging:

Some of those voters who were working and were generally pleased with their neighborhoods voiced little criticism of tax rates and described their tax burdens as fair and appropriate. "Taxes aren't bad," said Caye Campbell, whose husband has, after a long dry spell, been getting regular raises for the last three years at Caterpillar Tractor.

But those men and women who were out of work, or whose neighborhoods were deteriorating, were often openly bitter about their tax burdens. "I just can't stand it here," said Shelton, who plans to move out of the Peoria home in which she has lived for 27 years. "We are being taxed to death. . . . I'd like to move to North Carolina."

Similarly, Jon Lane, 28, a twice laid-off manufacturing worker, said: "They are ripping my heart out with taxes. I think taxes are 100 percent wasted." As economic pessimism has grown, the tax issue has become ever more pointed. 'Every One Is a Liar'

One man on whom that fact is not wasted is Neil F. Hartigan, the Democratic candidate for governor. A veteran of Cook County and state politics (he was a "boy" lieutenant governor almost 20 years ago), Hartigan started the race by condemning what he called "the Thompson tax hikes" and linking Jim Edgar to them. Edgar is a Thompson protege and former staff member, appointed and then elected to a state post where he has gained considerable visibility by promoting such non-controversial issues as a campaign against drunk driving.

While Hartigan has promised to dump at least part of the temporary surtax, Edgar has said it will be needed permanently -- and has attempted to make it a question of candor, not of taxes. Some Republicans worry that he will suffer the fate that befell Walter F. Mondale in 1984, when he told voters in accepting the Democratic nomination that he would raise taxes. But now that President Bush has reversed his "read my lips" campaign pledge, the Post-ABC News survey found an overwhelming majority of Americans disbelieving of any candidate who promises not to raise taxes -- no matter what.

Living-room interviews showed most voters have only fragmentary knowledge at this point of the records, reputations or positions of both gubernatorial candidates.

Still, Hartigan and Edgar at least have the advantage of having several statewide races behind them, albeit for down-ballot offices. Martin, the congresswoman who is known in Washington for her close political ties to Bush, is little known to Illinois voters as she ventures politically for the first time outside her Rockford congressional district. A few ventured admiring comments about her "brashness"; others criticized her for "cutting remarks." But most could say nothing positive or negative.

Martin's problem is compounded by the fact that Simon -- a veteran of many Illinois campaigns who gained additional publicity in his unsuccessful quest for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination -- is a familiar figure, viewed largely in benign or favorable terms.

Ross Eric, 30, an unemployed carpet-layer, plans to vote for Martin, as he voted for Bush. But he called Simon "a hell of a senator. He keeps in touch with people. I don't agree on all the issues, but he is an astute politician, works hard, stays on top of the issues, and honestly votes his conscience."

To have a chance in her race, Martin must play on the time-for-a-change mood expressed by voters like Regina Brooks, 28, of Greenville, a ticket-splitter who said: "Simon has tried too hard and too long. . . . When someone is in the same job for too long, there's no new blood to solve old problems."

The threat that stalks all the candidates -- as it does the American political system -- is the cynicism that makes so many voters say it's all a sham. In a neighborhood on Chicago's Northwest side, retired factory worker Augustine Medina exploded in anger when asked about politicians.

"Every one is a liar," he thundered. "They say something because they want your vote. {Chicago Mayor Richard M.} Daley said if we voted for him, our taxes would not go up. I voted for him, and now I have to scrape the bottom of my pockets for my last penny to pay the taxes. People come by and put {political} fliers in my door and now I say, 'Take it away. I don't want that stuff.' "

A few doors away, John Rodriguez, 49, a self-employed piano and bass player, said the coming campaign was of no interest to him. "I don't vote," he said. "It's just a trick. They get you down there to vote, they promise you anything, and they never deliver."

Staff writers Maralee Schwartz and Paul Taylor, special correspondent Lauren Ina, polling director Richard Morin, polling assistant Sharon Warden and staff researcher Bruce Brown contributed to this report.