The striking young woman craned her neck out the window of the big car, her face alight with excitement. Wasn't that white colonial just beautiful? Sally Stunkel purred. And that big Tudor on the corner - wouldn't it be perfect?

Gene Stunkel tried to smile, but he was getting a little tired of it all. They must have driven every lane, court and cul-de-sac in Potomac, Md., that day, and Sally had pronounced herself "really interested" in just above every house she saw.

Maybe it was time to call it a day, Gene offered hopefully. From the back seat, three fidgety kids seconded the motion.

It was May 1977, and the five Stunkels had come out from Danville, Ill., to see the nation's capital. The house-hunting excursion was an important part of the trip; the Stunkels would need a home after Gene took the new job in Washington in November 1978.

The trip was a little presumptuous - Gene admitted that. The "new job" he had in mind was a seat in Congress from Illinois' 22nd District. That would be a hard enough spot for a seasoned politican to land, not to mention a neophyte like Stunkel.

It was almost outrageously presumptuous for Stunkel to think he could win even the Republican Party primary let alone the November general election.But Stunkel knew he would win.

That conviction was one of the key reasons Stunkel undertook his vigorous campaign. He was a winner; always had been. He had won, over the past decade, a whole series of impossible business victories. Now he needed a new contest.

"You climb a mountain," Gene explained, invoking his favorite metaphor. "And then you've got to find a new mountain so you can climb higher."

Stunkel had made his first ascent in 1968. He quit his factory job, sold his house, and invested all he had in a carpet store. Gene and Sally had a grand total of $36 in the bank on th Saturday morning he opened the doors for the first time. By Sunday night, he had $18,000 in the till and a priceless conviction in his heart: Gene Stunkel was a born salesman.

New mountains came, and were conquered, in heady succession. The store grew into a carpet warehouse, the warehouse to a shopping center. Three shopping centers. A bank. A bakery. A Ramada Inn. "Genie's Wienies," a fast-food chain.

By early last year, the financial mountains were being scaled so easily that Stunkel needed another challenge. Politics the 1978 congressional race looked promising. It would be fun to win, Gene thought, and he'd be a heck of a congressman.

"Congress needs people who can manage things," he explained. "When you need a guy to run a bank, you don't give the job to a teller. You get somebody who's run something. I've run a lot of successful operations."

And so Gene Stunkel set out on his newest "Mission Impossible." He would succeed, of course; he always did.

"I wish you could stand behind me at Vegas," Stunkel said recently. "Sometimes I'm so hot I just know I'm going to win. And I lay those dice down and I'm a WINNER."

He whoops at the thought of it, then ponders a minute. "You know why I have to win? Because I'm scared to death of losing."

Dan Crane, the Danville dentist who is one of Stunkel's opponents in the 22nd District's Republican primary, is not particularly scared of losing.

Crane would prefer to win, of course, but he is not in politics just to win. Dan has a philosophy. In an era when curly hair and a booming broadcaster's voice seemed to be the only things some politicans had to offer, Crane is a throwback to a time when candidates offered the voters a coherent set of political views.

Crane's particular views could be called "conservative" Crane himself has no aversion for the label but that description cannot do justice to the breathtaking scope of governmental change that Dan Crane would like to see in the United States.

For nearly every societal ill, Crane has the same prescription: "Get the government off our backs." By meddling" in people's lives - in the lives of the welfare mother, the Social Security pensioner, the doctor, the patient, the consumer, the corporate manager - the government has killed self-reliance.

In his standard campaign speech, Crane likes to boast that his son is the only first-grader who gets no allowance. "It's never too early to teach kids the most important law of economics," Crane shouts. "There's no such thing as a free lunch."

Crane learned that law, and the rest of his libertarian philosophy, from his father, George Washington Crane IV, a psychologist and conservative columnist who raised his children in an enveloping nest of right-wing thought.

"He brainvashed us at an early age," Crane says, noting that his brother Phil, a congressman from northern Illinois, and his brother Dave, a congressional candidate this year in Indiana are equally fervent adherents to the paternal philosophy.

If Dan Crane learned conservatism at home, he also learned consistancy. He made that clear one evening last month at a fund-raising reception in Danville.

He first tried to convince the 50 Danvillians present that he could win. Then he set forth, with almost frightening intensity, he opposition to burgeoning government.

A hand went up among the listeners. "This is a farm district," the questioner noted. 'How do you feel about government involvement in farming?'"

Dan Crane "WAVED RIGHT IN. "I'm against government price supports." It's a federal subsidy. I think it's wrong."

The questioner was puzzled. Was opposition to farm price support a viable platform for a candidate in the 22nd?

"It doesn't matter to me," Crane said. "I'm not going to compromise my principles. If I can't convince the voters I'm right, at least I can say I tried."

On a sweltering Chicago afternoon in June of 1880, Bainbridge Lafayette Cunningham, a delegate from Lawrence County, Ill., was dozing in his seat at the Republican National Convention, bored by the pallid rhetoric at the podium.

Suddenly, a new voice swept the hall and electrified young Cunningham. It was Roscoe Conkling, of New York, the great orator in the U.S. Senate, who has risen to nominate U.S. Grant for a third term as President.

Conkling failed in his mission that day - the convention nominated James A. Garfield - but his ringing speech left an indelible impression on Bainbridge Cunningham. On his way back to Lawrence County, the young delegate pledged that his first son, and first grandson, too, would be named for Roscoe Conkling - and that both would be equally fervid Republicans.

Roscoe Cunningham Jr., a state legislator from Lawrence County who is running against Crane and Stunkel for the Republican congressional nomination this year in the 22nd District, can still remember how his grandfather told the story of the 1880 convention. And Roscoe Jr. has to chuckle at his grandfather's luck: the delegate's pledge has been fully borne out.

Of the three candidates in the primary race, Roscoe Cunningham surely has the deepest Republican credentials. He has been active in the party since he was first able to fold brochures and stuff envelopes in the back room of his father's feed store.

Cunningham, too, seems to have the greatest love for politics of the three GOP contenders. Running for election, he says, is an exhilarating experience.

"It's not a particularly proud profession, going door to door and asking strangers to back you," Cunningham explained the other day. "But there is a life to it . . . We get all our children out working with us, we campaign more vigorously than anyone else, and we win."

Cunningham's delight in the political process, in fact, seems to be a major reason for his entry in the congressional race this year. Running for new offices is an essential part of process. "I served four terms as state's attorney, and move on. Now I've had four terms in the legislature, and I'm moving on to this."

Roscoe is marvelously equipped for the campaign regimen. His wry wit, richly polysyllabic vocabulary, and ringing basso profundo make him a memorable public speaker. "You'll never forget Roscoe," people here say, and it is hard to find anyone in Cunningham's legislative district - covering about one third of the congressional district - who does not know "Roscoe" and his wonderful voice.

Once - in 1964, in a race for state's attorney - Cunningham's gifts failed him, and he lost. "It was . . . it was traumatic. Yes, traumatic, Truly traumatic," Cunningham says now.

"Losing is no fun," he goes on. "But our nerve must never fail us in these matters. So we excise negative thoughts and push on toward certain victory on March 21."

Victory in the March 21 primary would only be half the battle, however, Whether Stunkel, Crane, or Cunningham prevails, there would be a Democrat waiting . . .