Hard times hung heavy over the small towns of downstate Illinois as the young lawyer from Springfield, a new congressman, toured his district earlier this year.
On the walls of the Country Kitchen in Windsor were posters advertising farm-bankruptcy sales. Waitress Delores Graver, mother of two small children, explained that she had gone to work after her husband lost his construction job more than a year ago.
Discontent with the ailing economy helped usher many Democrats into the House in 1982, including Richard J. Durbin, who upset 22-year veteran Republican Paul N. Findley in this Illinois district that voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan. Now first-termer Durbin is trying to strengthen his position by smothering his district with attention.
''I live in the district and go to Washington for work,'' Durbin told the residents of the tiny village of Allenville earlier this year. Not much more than a closed-down gas station and a few crossroads, Allenville has only a community ''shed'' for its town meetings. When two dozen showed up to meet their congressman, they had to troop over to the only building of any size, the local church.
But Allenville is not too small to merit Durbin's attention. ''They can't get over the fact that I come,'' said Durbin after a day of three town meetings.
During his trip he heard complaints salted with farmer outrage about the Pentagon's buying thousand-dollar wrenches. Residents asked about grain prices, high utility bills, and factory layoffs. Amid calls for balancing the budget, constituents fretted about the loss of government benefits.
For generations these Midwesterners, surrounded by rich farmland and heavy industry, have asked little of their lawmakers. Now with farmers struggling and many factories boarded up, they seem open to a more activist role for the government.
''Findley was good,'' said Kevin Herron of the man Durbin defeated. But Mr. Herron, a farmer from the town of Findlay, continued, ''Things were going downhill. (Grain) prices were down, machinery prices were up.'' With recent improvements for farmers, the Findlay farmer gave the credit to Durbin. Moreover , Herron said, ''I like the way he goes into the individual cities. He finds out what the people think.''
''I don't know if Findley was ever in town,'' said Pauline Briney, mayor of Findlay, who fired questions at her new congressman while doubling as a newspaper reporter at the town meeting. Although Durbin's message is largely a moderate one, his voting record is rated 85 percent liberal by Americans for Democratic Action. Durbin moderates that record by putting a discreet distance between himself and the House Democratic leadership.
Decrying the federal budget deficit is one of his chief themes, and he joined a freshman revolt in voting against a stopgap funding bill to protest the red ink.
Republicans, who would like to win back the 20th District, have fielded Richard G. Austin, chairman of the board of Sangamon County. ''I don't believe Mr. Durbin truly reflects the opinion of this district,'' Mr. Austin said in an interview. ''The district is conservative,'' and his voting record is too liberal, he charged.
The Democrat voted against President Reagan on 89 percent of key votes, Austin said. ''Clearly I would support him on the majority of issues.''