ACROSS THE AMERICAN HEARTLAND — A HAY bale's throw from the house that Senate majority leader Bob Dole grew up in, Terry Mixer raises his voice above the rumble of a 2,000-horsepower diesel locomotive he's piloting slowly through Russell, Kan.
''Everything in Washington is a contest between Republicans and Democrats,'' the overall-clad conductor shouts. ''Seems the Democrats and Republicans hold each other back. Neither party is working together on anything.''
Three states away, mayoral candidate Earline Rogers slumps into a sofa after a long day on the stump in Gary, Ind.
''People here feel completely left out of the present agenda in Washington,'' Ms. Rogers says. ''They're out there setting policies without contact with the people. A raise in the minimum wage, for example, would mean a great deal to people in this town. A lot of young people would not get into selling drugs.''
As Congress begins this week to handle the hard choices about revamping government to balance the budget, there is a mix of hopeful expectation and deep concern across the American heartland.
From the truck stops of Ohio to the cornfields of Iowa, Americans are looking to Washington for renewal.
They want the government to stem red-ink spending without forsaking the neediest. They yearn for a piece of the American dream but see stagnant wages and a flagging dollar.
They are watching closely, almost with a sense of nostalgia, for reasons to feel renewed confidence in a government that many say has strayed too far from the people.
''We need less government, but I believe the real danger is that [Speaker] Newt [Gingrich] is going to go too far,'' says Ken Mathias, a trucker stuck in a traffic jam on Interstate 90 near Erie, Pa. ''I wish Colin Powell would run [for president].''
''I'd bring back FDR if I could,'' Mr. Mixer says. ''My second choice would be Truman. They had Democrats and Republicans working together.''
A long way from the Beltway
On a 4,300 mile road trip through the American Midwest, what becomes apparent is the disconnect between Washington and the people over the meaning of last November's elections.
That vote gave Republicans control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, and came as a sharp repudiation of President Clinton's health care and anticrime initiatives.
Republicans claimed a mandate. What they more likely have, listening to the voices of everyday Americans, is a short window of opportunity to gain the confidence of a detached, skeptical, and reactionary electorate.
Despite the vigorous Republican congressional agenda, voters still see politicians with fat pensions unable to demonstrate the fiscal responsibility voters demand without tampering with the Constitution.
A man works like a slave ''to feed his family, then those guys make great pensions,'' says Allan Evans, publisher of the Russell Daily News in Kansas.
''What we should do if we are serious about the deficit is start at the top. The country would fall in right behind them.''
Democrat and Republican are labels that seem to mean very little to Americans these days.
Voters express little optimism that either party really stands for a definitive set of principles. Instead, voters describe them in negative terms.
The GOP, as pollster Stanley Greenberg points out in his book ''Middle Class Dreams,'' was once was the party that believed in business-led prosperity. Voters in the heartland now think they stand for the prosperity of big business.
Democrats once were the party of the common man, but voters view them now as the party of entrenched and unaccountable big government.
As a result, whole constituencies -- labor, minorities, and women -- express feelings of abandonment and neglect. The political party that addresses their concerns, it seems, is the party that will win their support.
''In 1994, white males were energized, but no one else was,'' says Ron Milacsky, a communications science professor at University of Connecticut. ''1996 will rest on ... the mobilization of such middle-class constituencies as labor, women, and blacks.''
''Indiana is 12 percent black, but 52 percent of the penal population is black,'' says Douglas Wright, police chief of Gary.
''Now take the Republican crime bill: 43 percent of funding is for new prisons, and only 6 percent goes into prevention. Who do you think those prisons are for?''
Worries over Washington
In the remote northern Pennsylvania backwater of Coudersport, Potter County Commissioner Charles Bach leans his chair back against a press-board paneled wall.
He is optimistic that Republicans in Congress are bringing about change. But he worries about the impact of balancing the budget by 2002.
''The Republican revolution will be fantastic if done right,'' he says. ''But the first 100 days showed us nothing. Mark my words: The middle class is going to get hit again.''
Brad Moeckly, a corn farmer just outside Des Moines, Iowa, applauds the efforts of Republicans, worries the deficit may be too big to bring under control.
''This is the first time we've moved toward a balanced budget,'' he says, leaning up against his pickup truck.
''But I'm afraid its gone to far, and that scares me to death.''