"Most people don't know what epilepsy is," said Rep. Tony Coelho last night. "They think it's somewhere between syphilis and cancer." He was talking about when he faced one of his biggest campaign tests in California's 15th District. His opponent had pointed to Coelho's epilepsy, questioning his ability to handle the job.

"My response was, 'I'd known a lot of people who had gone to the White House and who had had fits. At least I had an excuse.' "

Coelho, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, throws a hard ball politically. But there were Republicans and Democrats alike to honor him at last night's Coelho tribute by the Epilepsy Foundation of America. He became the namesake and first honoree of the "Tony" award. The evening at the Capitol Hill Hyatt Regency, attended by several hundred, was chaired by bipartisan fundraisers Anne Wexler and Robert Keith Gray.

The compliments were abundant. House Speaker Tip O'Neill said, "He's a man with a heart as soft as fluffy snow . . . A man who has let the world know of his condition and by doing so helped the lives of thousands along the line."

Coelho's friend Jim Lake, the former press secretary for Reagan-Bush '84 and spokesman for the Inaugural Committee, called Coelho "one of the toughest, sharpest most successful adversaries we Republicans have."

Warren ("I'm sorry I just don't give interviews anymore") Beatty, in town for the Center for National Policy awards dinner Tuesday night, said of Coelho, "I like him."

Coelho also noted that the foundation had, by last night, raised $502,000, more than doubling its original goal.