WASHINGTON — Washington.--If Rich Williamson seems somewhat flummoxed, forgive him. His race for a Senate seat was supposed to be against the incumbent, Democrat Alan Dixon, an ideologically shapeless career politician vulnerable to today's anti-incumbent fever. Too vulnerable, it turned out.
In a three-person primary in March, Senator Dixon got bushwhacked by the Cook County Recorder of Deeds, a political consultant's dream candidate for 1992 -- a black woman incumbent-slayer. Since then Carol Moseley Braun has been surfing on a wave of friendly (sometimes swooning) media attention. Mr. Williamson, noting that her name is now better known than the governor's, knows he must change the contest from a choice between ''a 43-year-old white guy and a 44-year-old black woman with a nice smile.''
Sitting in her county building office, smiling serenely, she seems to know what he says he knows: Other things being equal, in a contest today between a man and a woman, 50 percent of voters are indifferent, 10 percent prefer voting for the man and 40 percent prefer voting for the woman. Furthermore, as Mr. Williamson says, voting for ''a non-threatening African-American makes many people feel good.''
So what does a 43-year-old white guy (and businessman, and former Reagan White House aide) have to do? He has to make her (a University of Chicago law graduate and former state legislator) seem threatening. Mr. Williamson's attacks include some GOP golden oldies. He says she has voted 11 times to raise taxes, and to raise welfare and her pay, and has voted against the death penalty and against reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in schools, and was a 1988 Jesse Jackson delegate.
But to Mr. Williamson's charge that she is a ''far-out left-wing liberal'' from ''the Chicago machine,'' she replies, smiling, that the charge is ''an oxymoron'' because the machine is inhospitable to far-out left-wing liberals.
Actually, neither candidate's politics plows any new intellectual ground. If Ms. Braun winds up sitting in Everett Dirksen's chair, she will be as conventional a Democrat as he was a Republican. She wants to raise taxes on the reptilian rich, ''to invest'' in this and that, and to siphon off more federal dollars for Illinois, which she says ranks 48th among the states in the ratio of dollars sent to Washington and dollars returned.
She expects to get to the Senate partly because ''the Senate demystified itself'' in the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill debacle. She does not mean, as some journalists have suggested, that most women are, or were, inflamed with sympathy for Ms. Hill. They weren't. Rather, she means that the Judiciary Committee convinced people that you could not throw rice in a restaurant without hitting half a dozen people who would be better senators.
Fewer than three in 10 of the state's votes are cast in Chicago and Mr. Williamson hopes that downstate voters are still Chicagophobic. But they do not dislike Democrats. Today most downstaters are represented by Democratic congressmen, and Illinois has two Democratic senators and Democratic majorities in both houses of the state legislature.
Mr. Williamson believes Ms. Braun wasted her post-primary glow, much as President Bush wasted his after Desert Storm. Mr. Williamson says she failed to produce an agenda beyond her persona. But her persona is much of her agenda, which is to ''open the Senate to working-class people.'' On those terms, all she has to do to succeed in the Senate is get there.
Mr. Williamson feels dragged down by President Bush who, he says, is perceived as intolerant on moral issues and injurious to the economy. Democrats believe Ms. Braun will help Governor Clinton by increasing Chicago's turnout, especially among black voters. Since the Democrats' riotous convention of 1968, no Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of the votes in the city and its suburbs.
Illinois is, as Michael Barone says in ''The Almanac of American Politics,'' the megastate most representative of the nation in its percentages of blacks and Hispanics, city-dwellers and suburbanites and farmers, the affluent and the impoverished. It also is a presidential bellwether, having voted with the winner in all but two presidential elections in the last 100 years. (It voted against two Southern Democrats -- Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and Jimmy Carter in 1976.) Considering that Michael Dukakis got 49 percent of Illinois' vote in 1988, Mr. Clinton's lead today is not surprising.
Strange, the way political events echo and ricochet. If, as many political soothsayers believe, the presidential election will be settled in the Middle West, the decision may be shaped by what happened in Illinois' Senate primary last March.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.