A not-funny thing happened to Dick Cheney on the way to Congress last year: he had a heart attack. The 37-year-old former chief of staff to Gerald Ford felt a tingling sensation in an arm last Father's Day, three months before Wyoming's Republican primary. At the hospital, doctors told the exhigh school football player he'd suffered a mild heart attack that required more rest and less politics.

But today he's Wyoming's new congressman, a first-term representative who turned a potential political liability into a plus. At one point during his campaign he jokingly organized a "Cardiacs for Cheney" group, and for six weeks -- as he rested and debated whether to continue in the race -- he watched his rating in the polls rise.

The media attention that accompanied his heart attack, coupled with campaigning by his wife Lynne, enhanced his position in a three-candidate race. He quit his three-packs-a-day smoking habit, began jogging and resumed active campaigning late last summer. "No one," he told reporters, "has ever tried the heart attack gimmick before."

Recalls Don Penny, a joke writer in the Ford White House and admirer of Cheney: "After his attack I said to him, 'Dick, why don't you take it easy?' He said, 'What's that?'"

This spring a campaign of a different sort begins for another member of the family -- Cheney's wife begins promoting her first book, a Washington novel to be published by Simon & Schuster. Lynne, 36, is a professional writer with a Ph.D. in 19th century British literature. She and Cheney were high school sweethearts. He was a co-captain of the football team in Casper, Wyo.; she was homecoming queen. The hero of Lynne's novel, Executive Privilege , is an investigative reporter, and author Cheney vows no character is fashioned after her husband or other recognizable Washingtonians.

"I get a kick out of somebody like William Buckley who leans against a balustrade and says he wrote his last book on a ski weekend at Gstaad," she says. "You should try writing one when your husband is running for Congress."

Cheney read his wife's final manuscript during his six-week hiatus from campaigning. "It didn't give me another heart attack," he says.

When he followed Donald Rumsfeld as Ford's righthand man in 1975, Cheney built a reputation as a hardworking aide with little time for the party circuit, a Ford loyalist whose wisdom belied his youth. (Comedian Penny used to say that "Dick Cheney's mother is so proud of her son's job at the White House that she picks him up from school every day to drive him there.")

After Ford's defeat, the Cheneys sold their Bethesda house and moved back to Wyoming, where Cheney once worked as a lineman, constructing high voltage power lines. In 1977 he expected to make a living as a public policy consultant.

"Congress wasn't anything I lusted after," Cheney recalls, but when the incumbent decided not to run, Cheney began working to return to Washington. The new skis his family had purchased were used once. He did little of the fishing he loves. And after the election victory, the Cheneys came to Washington to find, "We couldn't afford to buy our old house in Bethesda," says Lynne.

Today they live in a McLean townhouse with their two daughters. And Cheney has already been back to his old office building, at a dinner President Carter hosted for freshman congressmen. Cheney says it's too soon to contrast the view from the White House with that from Capitol Hill, and he isn't talkative about Gerald Ford's political chances two years from now. "My basic mission in life," he says, "is my own election in 1980."