Bounding up the narrow staircase, a sober-faced Frank R. Wolf moves briskly through the modest Falls Church office building with the same dogged determination that has characterized his two previous campaigns for Congress.

The 41-year-old Arlington lawyer shakes every hand in sight and passes out literature, even scrawling "Sorry I missed you" notes on the brochures he slides under any closed doors. And, he repeatedly reminds voters that he came "very close" to beating Northern Virginia Democratic Rep. Joseph L. Fisher two years ago and wants the chance to try again.

But Wolf's hopes of challenging Fisher this fall have run into formidable opposition: State Del. Martin H. Perper, a maverick Republican who is considered his chief rival in Tuesday's three-way GOP 10th District congressional primary.

Operating out of an abandoned Burger Chef restaurant near Tysons Corner, the Fairfax legislator is courting the votes of moderate party members and openly appealing to Democrats, feminists, and anyone else to back him over the conservative Wolf.

While Perper and retiring Falls Church Mayor Harold L. Miller, the third GOP candidate, are expected to make it a closer contest than many would have guessed a few months ago, Wolf, a baby food lobbyist, is the acknowledged front-runner.

Party workers say he's been campaigning for the nomination almost from the day he lost to Fisher in 1978.

"A Republican doesn't win anywhere without wanting it so bad he can taste it," says one local party activist, "and Frank wants it bad."

This single-minded quest and Wolf's 47 percent showing against Fisher last time have impressed a broad spectrum of Republican government and party officials, most of whom have endorsed the former congressional aide and one-time Interior Department deputy assistant secretary for legislative affairs.

Perper, who angered GOP regulars by challenging Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. as an "independent Republican" in a 1976 election, has plunged into this campaign with aggressive radio advertising that extolls his role in rescuing a Metro tax measure from the hostile state legislature. Wolf counter-attacked this week with television advertising -- something unheard of in a Virginia Republican primary.

The ads have helped Wolf hold onto mainstream Republicans, including many who disagree with him on issues, like the Equal Rights Amendment, which he opposes.

"I'm an ERA supporter, but I feel it's a state matter now," says Betty Greer, a Wolf coordinator in Fairfax County. "But I'm not a one-issue person, and what I care about most is that Frank is a super campaigner and has the best chance of winning in November."

The ERA issue surfaced recently when leaders of the Virginia Women's Political Caucus and the Virginia National Organization for Women signed a letter urging Democrats and Independents to support Perper over his two "antiwomen" opponents. The Perper campaign paid to have copies of the letter circulated in the district, considered to be one of the most liberal in Virginia.

"We want to stop not only Frank Wolf but the right wing organizations behind him," said Patricia Goodman, who chairs the Virginia NOW Political Action Group. "We know the right wing has been the biggest foe to our interests." She conceded, however, that Democrats drawn into the primary on Perper's behalf would probably vote for Fisher in November since he, too, has supported feminist issues in the past.

Questions about the ERA have been overshadowed by economic issues. All three of the candidates say the central issues are the need to curb inflation and slash government spending, agreeing with Wolf's contention that Fisher is "part and parcel" of a "big-spending" Carter administration.

The 10th District, which includes the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church, northern Fairfax County and all of Arlington and Loudoun counties, includes many of Washington's federal workers, but antispending themes have been popular there.

Wolf's largest campaign contributors include the political action committees of the American Bankers Association and the National Federation of Independent Business Inc. He also has received contributions of $1,000 each from the National Rifle Association and Lynchburg evangelist Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority Inc.

Perper says he has refused to accept large corporate donations and has suggested supporters limit their contributions to $15 or less. A management consultant and millionaire businessman, he criticizes Wolf for collecting and spending so much on a primary, adding that he plans to "set an example" by spending less than $20,000 compared to the $80,000 or more Wolf expects to spend.

Wolf, his sights on the November race, justifies his campaign spending as necessary to offset Fisher's power and privileges as an incumbent congressman. But he says he has also attracted small contributions from more than 1,100 individuals.

"I deeply believe that I will be a good congressman," says Wolf. "I think I'll make a difference, and we'd have the best constituent service ever."

A lobbyist for such firms as Gerber Baby Foods, Wolf says he knows the inner workings of Capitol Hill. Ideally, he would like to spend 12 years in Congress, then step aside for someone with fresh energy.

Having to go through a primary -- and a spirited one at that -- caught Wolf by surprise. He now says that the Perper and Miller challenges "forced me to get out early" and that should be an asset in the fall.

Perper, 40, complains that Wolf is arrogantly talking and acting like he is the party's nominee "and he hasn't ever held public office. I'm the one with experience working on a balanced budget and a record of legislative and constituent service."

The often forgotten candidate in this GOP contest is Miller, 50, who says his mayoral duties and wholesale lumber business have forced him to confine his campaigning to evenings and weekends.

Miller says he and Wolf "are fairly close" on the issues. Though he, too, is hoping to attract voters from a broad political spectrum, a surprise strong showing for Miller would likely be at Wolf's expense.