Peoria, Ill. — Congressman Robert H. Michel rode an elephant through the streets of Peoria when the circus came to town recently. For the veteran Republican, minority leader of the US House of Representatives, it had been 25 years since he had ridden one of his party's symbols.
''I'm running around like a freshman congressman,'' he mutters in his district office, on the run to his next campaign appointment. His tone is good natured, but he is stating a fact. Not since Mr. Michel first won his seat in 1956 has he had to politic so hard to keep his job.
''All the stops are out of the organ,'' says Michel campaign treasurer Bob Strodel. ''Michel's campaigns over the years have been: make the rounds, speak to the folks, and get reelected.'' Not this year.
Although his opponent, Peoria labor lawyer G. Douglas Stephens, is a political newcomer, Michel takes the challenge seriously. After winning with relative ease for 13 terms, the incumbent faces a contest with all of the difficulties of 1982 jammed into it - a newly carved out congressional district with 45 percent new voters, plus unemployment and depressed farm prices.
There's also a touch of foreign policy, with constituents angry over President Reagan's sanctions against the Soviets.
To meet the challenge, Michel has launched his first thoroughly modern campaign, costing at least $200,000, and much more if needed. And he is sticking close to home.
Even the act of mowing his small but meticulously planted back yard on one of Peoria's older streets becomes grist for the campaign mill, with a TV news crew recording it.
The race has attracted national media to this ''heartland'' of America's heartland - in part to watch a possible David-and-Goliath match, but also because minority leader Michel more than almost anyone on Capitol Hill has stood with the President. He pieced together coalitions to push the Reagan economic program through the Democratic House.
''The last year and a half it's really been a pleasure being down there (in Washington) because we're winning a few,'' he told a Peoria Rotary Club, which received him approvingly.
Other constituents are not so happy. While Michel won battles in Washington, his central Illinois district has been struggling through the worst economic times since the 1930s. For decades the giant Caterpillar Company, which sells earthmoving machinery around the world, had shielded the Peoria area from recession. Now Caterpillar has laid off thousands of workers, setting off a chain reaction of business setbacks. Unemployment has risen more than 15 percent.
But the last straw was President Reagan's sanctions against the Soviet gas pipeline, which forced Caterpillar to cancel a $90 million contract for pipelayers.
Constituents are asking why their congressman, who is close to the President, could not have stopped the sanctions. Or if not, ''he could have been more forceful'' in his opposition, says one retail executive.
In his own defense, Michel says that ''even if we had the pipeline contracts, 16,000 would have still been laid off totally. The pipelayers are only 2 to 3 percent of Caterpillar's total business.'' However, he acknowledges a concern in his district that ''we have lost the image of a reliable supplier,'' and that foreign countries, who buy about half of Caterpillar's machines, might turn to other suppliers, such as Japan.
If the manufacturing business is bad, farming could be in even worse shape, ironically at a time when farmers are beginning to harvest the best grain crops many have ever seen. The bountiful crop means rock-bottom prices, while farmers continue paying high interest for borrowing and inflated prices for farm machinery.
A group of farmers gathers for morning coffee at the South Pekin Fertilizer company, south of Peoria, where the talk is about farm woes and Congressman Michel.
''Bob Michel is in trouble,'' says Bob Cupi, who owns the fertilizer company with his father. ''Right now I'm sure he's in trouble. They blame him for not doing a little more.''
''I'm not going to vote for any of those guys (incumbents),'' says Ernest Runyon, a grain farmer who plants more than 1,000 acres in one of the most efficient operations in the area. With prices so low for corn and soy beans, he expects to break even this year. Others say they will lose money on every acre they harvest.
Mr. Runyon, like many other farmers, says the problems began with the embargo against grain sales to the Soviet Union, imposed by President Carter. ''The embargo did it,'' he says. ''Now Russia is not going to buy from us unless they're desperate.''
''Farmers just want to make a living,'' says Jack Goetze, who farms 800 acres and has found himself going deeper into debt. Conditions are as bad as during the 1930s, says Mr. Goetz. ''The only difference is that people are not panicking.''
Although farmers are not clear on exactly what they want the government to do (except end all embargoes), Goetz is sure that he's unhappy with incumbent Michel. ''Bob Michel has become real complacent until this election,'' he says.
Whether such discontent will translate into defeat for Michel is far from certain. After hearing complaints from voters about their congressman, this reporter asked whether they would vote for his Democratic opponent, Doug Stephens. Often the response came: ''Who?'' - followed by a pause and, ''I don't know.''
Introducing Stephens to the voters is especially hard, since it requires expensive television time, and so far his campaign has raised only about $65,000 . He has been forced to rely mainly on personal appearances and news coverage. At a ''pig roast'' on a farm near Peoria, Stephens rode into the event on a donkey to a cheering crowd of supporters, most of them labor union members. The need for more funds was a major theme of the event.
When the band played, the crowd responded with a ''dollar-a-dance'' custom that is usually reserved for weddings in central Illinois. The women lined up to dance with the candidate, each one handing him a dollar for the campaign, and later the men lined up to dance with his wife, Sherry.
For his part, Michel rarely mentions his opponent. At a recent ''burgers with Bob'' cookout on a farm near Pekin, Ill., he chatted with supporters and answered questions. But no one mentioned campaign contributions. Money is no a problem for Michel's campaign.
Despite the economic problems in his district, Michel runs comfortably ahead of his opponent two months before the election. A conservative who eschews federal spending except when it comes to defense, he reflects the values of many of his constituents, including many blue-collar workers.
Eldred Bryant, a Caterpillar welding engineer, says he's ''not sure about the next three months'' and whether he'll be laid off, after working there for 26 years. ''Our parking lot is empty,'' he says of his company. Even so, he says, ''I attach no blame to the administration for this. I think the road is right, but that don't make it any less rocky.''
Many in the labor unions disagree. They blame Michel and the Republicans for forgetting the ''working man,'' and they argue that even if Stephens is inexperienced, ''he can't be worse than what we've got.'' But labor and especially the unemployed have a poor record for turning out the vote.