It was sometime in 1976 that Gene Stunkel realized he was losing interest in making more money.

His jet was in the shop half the time, and business trips were no fun on commercial flights. His bank became a hassle, so he sold it. Ditto his Ramada Inn. Ditto the carpet warehouse and two of the shopping centers.

His fast food chain, Genie's Wienie's," Stunkel didn't sell, because it took so little of his time and made so much money. But his dreams of franchising it nationally had been moved, so to speak, to the back of the grill. Gene Stunkel needed something else to do.

This sea change in Stunkel's state of mind - well, it was "sort of weird," he told his friends.

For Stunkel, financial manipulations had always been a total turn-on; and they had been almost totally successful. With his own pluck and his bank's money, he had built from scratch a chain of successful businesses that had earned him, at age 33, more money than most of his neighbors here in east central Illinois ever dreamed of.

The businesses weren't Stunkel's only blessings. He had the happy self assurance that big money, earned fast, always seems to foster. He had, in fact, an ego that matched Muhammad Ali's - but there was also an endearing charm that won friends despite the braggadocio. He had a handsome wife, with a winning personality. He had a beige Seville, a house in the country, Jack Nicklaus autographed woods, a day/date watch carved from a solid block of gold. Gene Stunkel had it made.

He had it, but did he like it?

"About two years ago I sat down with myself," Stunkel explained recently. "'Gene,' I said, 'You've conquered a lot of goals. But you're bored with your life at this time. You've got to get yourself into a new boxing match.'"

There was a germ in his mind - planted, perhaps, by the Bicentennial - and itwas growing. By last March it was a full-fledged ideas; by May, a full-time commitment. Gen Stunkel, who had managed his own affairs so well, would help manage the country's: he would run for Congress, as a Republican in 1978.

In politics, Stunkel was an utter neophyte. But he set out, with characteristic vigor, to learn about his new line of work.

The first lesson was that a congressional campaign would consume prodigious amounts of cash.

It took $7,000 to commission a poll of attitudes in the district. It took a few thousand more to enroll Stunkel and his campaign treasurer in a school for candidates. Thousands more for bumper stickers, brochures and the like.It even cost money - a few hundred dollars each time - just to file reports on how he was spending money.

There were social niceties to be observed as well. As a budding Republican candidate, Stunkel had to call personally on each of the district's precinct committeemen, seeking 21 county chairmen and on scores their blessing. For the most part, he got it.

"We were happy we even had a candidate," said Cassie Hile, a precinct committeeman (terms like committeewoman" have not yet entered the vernacular of downstate Illinois) from Danville.

"He seemed like a nice boy," she recalled recently. "We were kind of sorry for him, in a way. He was working so hard and all, but we knew a Republican couldn't win."

The reason the GOP leaders knew Stunkel was sure to lose can be set forth in two words: George Shipley.

Shipley, and easygoing, personable Democrat, had represented the district in Congress for 19 years. With a congenial manner and a conservative voting record that fit the 22nd like a favorite pair of old shoes, Shipley seemed destined to stay in Congress for years.

In short, Stunkel's cause was hopeless, and everybody told him so. Even his wife, Sally, who had gone along with some downright wild business deals in the early days, tried to suggest, gently, that maybe they ought to give up.

Stunkel, being Stunkel, was undaunted. By Labor Day he had dreamed up the perfect campaign slogan ("He Thinks Like Us") and was running as if his life depended on it.

On Sept. 10, 1977, Sally Stunkel was puttering around the house when the Danville Commercial-News called. Did the Stunkels have any comment? the reporter wanted to know.

Why, on the congressional race, the reporter said. Shipley had just announced he would not run for re-election in 1978. That meant the conservative and largely Republic 22nd District was up for grabs. And Gene Stunkel was the only Republican in the race.

Sally's scream of delight split the heavens over Illinois.In sheer excitement, she raced out the door - just as her husband's car came careening up the winding drive.

"Gene! Oh, Gene!" she shouted, her arms waving crazily above her. "You'll never guess what's happened! You're going to win! You're going to be in Congress!"

Among the protocol visits Stunkel paid last summer, just after he had decided to run, was a stop at 3570 N. Vermillion St. in Danville, a neat split-level that houses the home and dental practice of Dr. Dan Crane.

At that adress dwell two of the 22nd District's GOP VIPs.

Dan Crane's wife, Judy, is the precinct committeeman for one of the best Republican sections of Danville.

At 41, Dr. Crane is the acknowledged leader of the district's Reaganite bloc - a minority, but a considerable one, within the overall Republican Party. In 1976, he was district chairman of Ronald Reagan's primary campaign against President Ford, and had run unsuccessfully for a delegate's chair at the national convention.

As loyal Republicans, the Cranes were pleased when an attractive, articulate man named Gene Stunkel showed up to offer himself as the party's candidate against Shipley. But as they listened to Stunkel laying out his grandiose plans for getting to Congress, Dan and Judy Crane could not completely hide a gnawing envy.

Dan Crane had wanted all his life to get to Congress. It was, almost literally, in his blood. His father had drilled that particular goal into all the Crane boys, and the lesson took. Dan's oldest brother, Phillip, has been in Congress for eight years. Another brother, Dave is running this year for a congressional seat in Indiana.

Twelve years ago, fresh out of dental school, Dan entered a congressional primary in a rural Indiana district. He lost badly to a candidate who had the local Republicans in his pocket before the race began. He learned something there: don't start if there's no chance to finish first.

That lesson had kept Crane on the sideline in the four congressional races since he moved to Danville, Shipley was simply unbeatable. The Stunkels of the world could make their futile stabs if they wanted; Dan Crane would wait for a more propitious time and place.

It was almost too good to be true, then, when Crane heard, one morning last September, that Shipley was stepping aside. Here was the moment Dan Crane had almost stopped hoping for.

There were some doubts, of course: after seven steady years of growth, his practice was solid. With a fifth baby coming, it might be risky to give it up for a year of campaigning. Dan stewed for a week: in the end, inevitably, he entered the race.

There was no problem: that Stunkel character was already stumping the district like hell on wheels, and most party members assumed he would be their candidate.

Fair enough. If a primary fight were necessary, Crane would fight. With his contacts from the Reagan wars and his wife's connections on the precinct committees, he ought to be able to whip an outright beginner One-on-one with Stunkel, Crane figured, he'd win the nomination in a walk.

Although the northern half of the 22nd District is hardly anybody's idea of a teeming metropolis (its two "urban centers." Danville and Matton, boast populations of 42,000 and 19,500, respectively), it is so much more heavily populated than the Southern half that many Danville residents look on the southern counties as a sort of wilderness.

Like other wildernesses, the southern sector of the 22nd has a voice crying for attention. The local voice belongs to a diminutive Republican who wears a tam-o'-shanter atop his balding head, prides himself on precise English syntax, and likes to quote Victorian poets in his memorable forays into political rhetoric.

Indeed, the voice might be known as the 22nd's homegrown version of S.I. Hayakawa. But since most people here don't give a hoot about senators or semanticists, the locals know their voice in the wilderness simply as plain old "Roscoe."

"Roscoe" is Roscoe Cunningham, a 55-year-old state legislator from the little town of Lawrenceville who is a lawyer (out of economic necessity) and a politician (out of love).

Although Cunningham is not rich, he has two assets more precious than gold for a political man: a compelling gift for public speaking and a perfect sense of timing.

The name "Roscoe Cunningham" first appeared on a Republican ballot, in Lawrence County in 1952 - a ballot headed by Dwight D. Eisenhower and a string of other popular Republicans. Roscoe won that election - for county prosecutor - and continued to win until 1964, when the first name on the GOP ballot, Barry Goldwater, spelled disaster.

In 1968, when the top of the ticket read "Richard Nixon" and "Everett Dirksen," Roscoe Cunningham was back. He won again, and has won re-election to the state legislature in every campaign since.

As a legislator, Cunningham charmed the press corps with his stirring oratory and starting candor. Before voting for a campaign financial law, he announced that "philosophically I'm ashamed to vote 'yes' but politically I'm afraid to vote 'no.'" There were other, similar incidents. His name became commonplace in the local papers.

Cunningham was so well-known that he began to think about a bigger political target: George Shipley's seat in Congress. But when? With Shipley's victory margin growing in each election, the timing for a challenge was never right.

Shipley's surprise withdrawal solved that problem. There was no doubt that Cunningham would run. The only remaining question was the primary.

"There was some negotiation with the county chairman to try to arrange an uncontested primary," Cunningham explained recently. "The chairman saw the value of this. But that young man from Danville did not."

It was Stunkel again, refusing to play ball. And then Crane jumped in as well. If Cunningham wanted the nomination, he would have to work for it.

Not that it would take much work, Cunningham felt. He was the only real candidate in the GOP race - the only one who had ever won an election.

"My campaign handlers predict victory," he said, his rich voice ringing with confidence. "I unequivocably agree."

The snow of January still lay thick on the corn stubble in the 22nd's board flatlands, and already there was a rip-snorting race underway for the March 21 primary. Stunkel, Crane and Cunningham were campaigning their hearts out, each in his own distinct way - and each for his own distinct reasons.

Next: Why they run.