FOR Theresa Adams and millions of other voting Americans, the national election today is more intensely personal than any in recent memory. Beyond what Mrs. Adams describes angrily as the ``hot air'' of the political campaign is the sobering reality that her home in this rural town of 8,000 was broken into twice this year, and her business once.
To her, crime is not something rooted in inner cities. A business woman and mother of two, Adams enters the privacy of the voting booth today believing that political parties mean little in her search to find crime-stopping candidates.
According to national polls and Monitor interviews, Adams typifies a huge block of alienated voters. With frustrated hopes and disappointment in all politicians and Congress, they know or fear the consequences of crime, inadequate health care, unemployment, struggling families, welfare, and unsafe schools.
What their vote could mean, multiplied, is that many Democrats will lose their seats in Congress and statehouses. Angry citizens could boot out incumbent Democrats and welcome a wave of Republicans, changing both the House and Senate to a Clinton-threatening GOP majority.
But in this election, party affiliations are deceptive. ``I'm a registered Republican, but I really ignore the parties,'' says Adams. ``I vote for the person who seems to have the most principle.''
In the Midwest, a University of Iowa poll last week disclosed that about 51 percent of those polled no longer considered themselves Democrats or Republicans. They preferred ``Independents.''
What appears to have made many voters shun traditional party designations are two key factors: the inability of Congress to collaborate with recent presidents to act decisively on vital issues, and belief that the two parties are not responding to changing societal conditions with innovative political solutions.
For many, trust in Congress and elected officials has completely crumbled.
``I don't trust Congress,'' says Mike Bates, owner of a liquor store in Putnam. ``If they can put some money in their pockets they will do it. I think congressmen shouldn't be paid. Serving there as a representative should be a privilege, not an opportunity to make money off the privilege.''
Seated at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Chicago, Diane Smith, an unemployed mother with three children, shares an all-too-common perception of Congress. ``They're all full of mess-up there,'' she says. ``There's crookedness going on. We always hear it in the news. How can you ask someone to do something for the country when they're embezzling everything?''
Despite Capitol Hill's unsavory reputation, many voters continue to believe in the possibility that the institution can change from the inside.
``On certain points Congress falters,'' says Jean Arthur Sellegren, a community-college teacher in Whitefish, Mont., ``but the best way to come out with a stronger country is to learn from our falterings. There is no way Congress can please everybody all the time.''
FOR G.T. Smith, a retired university president in Ashland, Ore., Congress has allowed itself to slip into a bind. ``On the one hand they are elected to represent a constituency,'' he says, ``but then [they are] caught up by and thrown completely into national and societal issues. They are caught between those who have sent them to Washington [and] ... being whipped around by these issues.''
He suggests term limits, campaign-finance reform, and de-professionalizing politicians as keys in changing Congress.
``I have no less trust in Congress than I did 30 years ago,'' he says. ``Most people most of the time are trying to do the right thing, including those we elect to office.''
Rick Rosden, owner of Wonderland Comics in Putnam, echoes a sentiment that even harsh critics of politics are likely to unite over.
``I'm terribly American, terribly patriotic,'' he says. ``This is the greatest country in the world. Congress is just a part of it and not that important. America is always changing, so Congress can change too.''
Seated in a small cafe in Putnam, Lois Andersen, a retiree living on Social Security, says she worries about America's future, particularly about families and children struggling to live good lives. ``I see so many values changing as I get older,'' she says. ``I'm not angry, but I see everything going down the tubes. There are so many one-parent households trying to hold things together.''
While many voters complain about Congress and politicians, many citizens don't vote; they remain uninformed and uninvolved.
``Part of the problem in this country is us,'' Mr. Bates says. ``Ask people on the street what are the issues and who to vote for, and they don't know.''
But Neil Delmonico, manager of a photo store in Putnam, sees the problem of an unresponsive Congress differently.
``A lot of people say, `throw the bums out,' '' he says, `` `but don't throw out my congressman. He's a good guy and he's done a good job.' If that's the attitude, then nothing will ever change.''
Mrs. Andersen thinks the schools don't do enough to encourage understanding of citizen responsibilities. ``Young people aren't encouraged to take part,'' she says. ``They don't care because schools don't care, and there's so much entertainment in kids' lives these days.''