TROPICAL storm John Q. Public is churning toward the United States, and politicians worry it will strike with full fury on election day. Gusts of voter anger already are blowing across the land - from Massachusetts to Louisiana to Oklahoma. Experts, gazing at their charts, say this storm looks big.
``The mood of the country is more pessimistic than at any time since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980,'' says Neil Newhouse, a Republican consultant and vice-president of the Wirthlin Group. ``The political atmosphere is extremely volatile.''
Conservative political consultant Craig Shirley says voter unrest resembles the ``populist revolution'' that put Ronald Reagan into office in the 1980s, ``but this one is more passionate.''
The storm could blow away both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, analysts say. The winds won't discriminate. But the impact will be limited because many representatives of Congress have only token opposition, or none at all. Even so, expect some upsets on Nov. 6.
One likely impact: passage of initiatives to limit the terms of state lawmakers in Colorado and California. Eventually, such term limits could be extended to Congress.
How frustrated are Americans? A decade ago, when US hostages languished in Iran and President Carter was speaking of national malaise, only 22 percent of Americans thought the country was going in the right direction. Today it is 23 percent.
During the Iran crisis, 71 percent said the country was going on the wrong track. Today it's 69 percent.
``These are incredible numbers,'' says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. ``If this were a presidential year, you'd say [President] Bush was a goner.''
Polls began nose-diving two weeks ago, Mr. Newhouse reports. Analysts see several causes, particularly the Washington budget impasse. There are also the rapidly weakening economy, the rising jobless rate, the bear market on Wall Street, the $500 billion savings and loan scandal, and talk of higher taxes.
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, says that because of all this, ``the defeat rate for congressmen will be higher than in the past few elections.'' But Dr. Sabato notes that many members usually win by huge margins, so in many cases, voter anger will only reduce those margins. As a result, ``the anti-incumbent wave won't sweep out [many] incumbents.''
Even in the Watergate years, when voter disgust with Washington was at an all-time high, about 85 percent of the Congress was reelected, Sabato observes. ``So relatively speaking, incumbents never have a bad year.''
George Grayson, who is both a Virginia legislator and a political scientist at the College of William and Mary, says there is ``a strong, mean-spirited, anti-politician sentiment'' in the country. Voters are saying; ``A pox on the houses at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.''
Dr. Grayson relates an experience that sums up the public dismay with lawmakers. At a party, a neighbor said to him: ``Please stay honest. I'd be so crushed if I couldn't trust you.''
Says Grayson: ``There's just a foul mood out there in regard to people in elected positions. If we had a referendum to limit terms [of Congress] to 12 years or six years, or single terms, all of the above would pass overwhelmingly.''
Mr. Shirley says anger isn't aimed at any particular political party, but eventually it is the GOP that could be hurt. ``The problem is personified in ... George Bush,'' he says. ``There are many Democrats, but there is only one Republican leader.
``This is not an opportunity for conservatives. It is a terrific problem. You are pulled in two directions. You're pulled one way by loyalty to the president and another way by ideology. The two are not in sync.''
Shirley, who advises conservative politicians, says: ``Domestically, conservatives are just at their wits' end on this one. They don't know what to do. My advice to any candidate who is running for office, now or in '92, is three words: `Run Against Washington.' Run against the establishment, the entrenched special interests, and the detached, arrogant nature of this town.''
Grayson agrees that if anyone benefits from the crisis, it will probably be Democrats, who have crystallized the budget debate into a rich vs. poor on taxes.
``It makes the Democrats look more like the party of the people,'' Grayson says. ``But since the Democrats are so enmeshed with special interests, in bed with the S&Ls just like everyone else,'' the benefit will be minimal.
Republicans are scrambling for cover - even running against the Bush position on taxes, if necessary.
Rep. Jim McCrery (R) of Louisiana took that tack this month, and won in the open primary against strong Democratic opposition.
According to a report in Roll Call, a newspaper circulated on Capitol Hill, Mr. McCrery even went so far as to cancel TV spots featuring endorsements by the president on the eve of the election. McCrery wanted nothing that tied him to higher taxes.
That's a strategy that several other Republicans are expected to follow in the final three weeks of the campaign.