CHICAGO -- The voter backlash that spooked Congress from passing the budget-deficit package and threatens candidates of both parties this election year came into sharp focus among 11 Illinoisans who gathered here Friday night to talk about the campaign for governor.

"We need to make a statement that if you don't do what you say you're going to do, we're going to get rid of you," said Bob Moynihan, 29, a funeral director in Evergreen Park. "We as citizens have to be willing to hear things we sometimes don't want to hear -- including the need for higher taxes. But they better level with us."

Moynihan and 10 other voters spent the evening voicing displeasure at Thursday night's first televised debate between Illinois gubernatorial rivals Jim Edgar and Neil Hartigan and at some of their campaign TV ads.

Alice B. Ihrig, 66, an adult-education consultant and onetime Oak Lawn village trustee, agreed with Moynihan's assessment of where the problem lies. "We are guilty of allowing these candidates to give us pap. It's our fault. We are not demanding of these candidates."

Others in the circle -- a college student, an electrician, two retirees, a dietitian, an optometrist, a housewife, a business manager and a college professor -- spoke of their disappointment in the political process they were witnessing, suggesting that it cheated the voters and made the candidates seem worse than they are.

"Neither one of them," Moynihan said of the gubernatorial candidates, "is willing to say 'Gesundheit,' unless a public opinion poll says it's okay to say 'Gesundheit.'"

"The packaged answers you get in these ads and debates are a complete turnoff to me," said Richard Murphy, 41, the electrician. "Both these candidates have been public officials. . . . . Both have track records. And what they're saying is not necessarily what they did and what they're saying about their opponents is not necessarily what they did."

The debate and ads the 11 Illinoisans had watched were typical of the electronic communication that dominates campaigns everywhere these days, with each candidate doing his best to undermine the other's credibility. The lead paragraph in the Chicago Sun-Times story on the debate said "Hartigan accused Jim Edgar of 'lying' and Edgar described Hartigan as a weak politician who has 'wimped out' and 'buckled under.' " Even though the debate rhetoric was milder than many of the ads, the Chicago Tribune story called it "personally bitter."

Actually, the battle to succeed retiring, 14-year incumbent Gov. James R. Thompson (R) has more focus to it than many other campaigns. Illinois voters have indicated in poll after poll that their two main concerns are the tax burden and the quality of the schools. Both Democrat Hartigan and Republican Edgar have focused on those issues -- rather than trying to create diversions. Virtually all their ads broadcast so far -- and more than half the time of the hour-long TV debate -- dealt with those questions.

But judging from what many of the voters say, the candidates are succeeding far better in creating distrust of their opposition than in building support for themselves. A Tribune poll, taken just before the debate and published Sunday, showed Edgar holding the same 38 to 35 percent lead over Hartigan he had in August, with 27 percent of the voters still declining to make a choice.

In a southwest-side Chicago shopping center the evening after the debate, random interviews provided a chain of cynical comments from those who had watched at least a bit of the program. Marty Wilmot, a teacher, said his inability "to believe either one of them" stemmed from his disillusionment with President Bush. "I didn't think anybody could be as emphatic as Bush was in saying he would not raise taxes and be lying -- and yet here we are, with him doing what he's doing. You can just forget the promises made before an election, I guess."

Marian Sullivan, a secretary, said, "Until they get in office, you don't know what they're going to do. It seems like they change their opinion the day after the election."

Unlike these random interviewees, the 11 people who accepted The Washington Post's invitation to spend the first evening of a holiday weekend in a discussion on politics were, almost by definition, atypical in their level of interest and sophistication about government. Virtually all were ticket-splitters, with four each identifying themselves as Democrats and independents and three as Republicans. Nearly all were unhappy with the way politics is being practiced these days.

Timothy Leonard, 56, a teacher at St. Xavier College, seemed to speak for most when he said the debate highlights "were very frustrating to listen to. I never know any more afterward than I did before."

"That's one reason there are so many undecided voters and so many others who don't even register to vote," said Norine Condon, 58, a self-employed dietitian and investment counselor. "You don't feel you've got a handle on it. You don't really know the mettle of the man."

Moynihan touched on another popular theme when he said, "The most powerful entity is the media . . . and I wish the media would use some of that power . . . to make them {the candidates} tell us more about who they really are. The front page of the Sun-Times should say tomorrow, 'We're disgusted with these two and we're going to vote for none of the above, unless they use the next four weeks to tell us who they really are. We're looking for some straight answers.' "

"They should have each of them submit a resume, and then ask them specifics," businessman Raymond Jonker, 35, said. "In what we've just been shown, there was not one solid bit of information somebody could take home."

Unexpectedly, the group found that kind of information among its own members. Alice Ihrig reminded them that "one reality is that we have a Democratic legislature. The governor doesn't control appropriations, although if he is a strong leader, he can influence the legislature."

That fact, not mentioned in any of the campaign ads or at any point in the debate, provoked a sharp discussion about whether it was desirable or dangerous to have the Democrats control both branches of state government -- the same issue, incidentally, which underlies the budget impasse in Washington.

A similarly sharp discussion ensured after Patricia Roach, 49, a Stickney Township employee, and Wanda Jensen, a retiree, blamed Thompson for the tax hikes of the last 14 years and asserted that Edgar was his "clone." Jonker and other Republican-leaning participants strongly challenged that assessment.

The final piece of the discussion was provided by optometrist Neil R. Hudur, 40, who defined the differences between the candidates' stands on school financing. "One person {Edgar} has proposed a plan that will provide $350 million next year," by continuing a 20 percent income tax surtax. "Another person {Hartigan} has a plan that may be able to provide those dollars, providing he can find savings elsewhere" after the surtax expires. "I will go with the sure thing, regardless of the individual, because I don't think we can gamble those dollars earmarked for education."

Leonard, the college teacher, said, "I've heard more in this discussion than on the television. Wanda and Neil really presented both opposite views -- that we should stick with the sure thing or throw the rascals out and see what the new guy can do. I think that's a real choice, and I hadn't heard that until this evening: Go with the new guy, who is of the same party as the legislature and hope he can influence them, or stick with the guy who says he'll keep the surcharge and the school money it provides."

The discussion shifted votes in Edgar's direction in this tiny and not necessarily representative group. A secret ballot at the beginning of the evening showed six leaning to Edgar, with four certain or leaning to Hartigan and one undecided. At the end, Edgar had an 8 to 3 lead.

More important, the participants said they had learned more from each other than from the campaign or its media coverage -- and felt better about going to the polls.

"I think we are very lucky," Alice Ihrig said, as the roundtable ended. "We have two good men running. Neither one of them is evil. Neither is inexperienced. Our two are at least acceptable candidates, and we're very fortunate compared to other states."

Staff researcher Bruce Brown and special correspondent Lauren Ina contributed to this report.