When an unknown Democrat by the name of Carter won the Iowa presidential caucuses in January of 1976, the normally insignificant Iowa contest took on considerable symbolic importance just because Jimmy Carter had won something.

Overnight the Georgian went from "nobody" to "serious contender." In newspapers across the country, the Iowa results brought Carter's smiling photograph to the front pages for the first time.

But not even Jimmy Carter's famous victory grin was as broad as the happy, confident smile perched atop Gene Stunkel's imposing frame last Thursday evening when he arrived in this sleepy country town for the monthly meeting of the Montgomery County Republican Committee.

Gene Stunkel was running for Congress -- one of seven candidates in a wide-open race here in Illinois' 22nd District. He had been running for months but his opponents saw him as a hopeless beginner.They had in fact, almost ignored him. It stung his pride.

But now all that would change. Gene Stunkel had a coup in the works.

Although he was an utter neophyte in politics. Stunkel was on the brink of winning Montgomery County's endorsement for the March 21 primary election.

Montgomery, as the first county to schedule an endorsement vote, was important to all three Republican contenders. But for Stunkel, it could be crucial. Montgomery County could do for Gene Stunkel what Iowa had done for Jimmy Carter: teach the party regulars that the newcomers could win.

Accordingly, Stunkel had put in months of exhausting spadework in the county's scattered hamlets. Now it was time for the harvest.

When he arrived here Thursday evening, Stunkel had the plum almost in his grap. By the end of the evening, though, it had slipped away --own fault.

The pursuit of political endorsements from various corners of the district, the state and the nation has been important for all the congressional hopefuls here.

The unexpected announcement last fall that the district's popular representative in Congress, George E. Shipley, a Democrat from Olney, would not run for reelection in 1978, drew four Democrats and three Republicans into the congressional race.

None was well known throughout the sprawling district. Thus all seven set out to find bright lights in whose beam they could stand.

Among the Democrats, the clear winner in this search has been Don Watson, a gentle soul from Olney who is the incumbent congressman's chief spokesman in the district.

Since the very day he announced he would not run, Shipley had been urging the 22nd's Democrats to choose Watson as his replacement.

The incumbent's backing has been a potent advantage for Watson, but it is a prize laced with poison. Each time Watson mentions Shipley's endorsement, he also mentions, implicitly, the other Democrats' main issue in the primary race: nepotism. For Watson is George Shipley's brother-in-law, and some Democratic voters here are clearly miffed at the effort to keep the congressional seat within the family.

Terry Bruce, the young state senator from Olney who is Watson's chief opponent, snagged an early endorsement from the teachers' union, winning him supporters in every community in the district. Bruce says the endorsement reflects his pro-teacher voting record in the Senate. Watson likes to point out, though, that Terry Bruce's brother is the teachers' union's chief lobbyist.

Dave Hill, an energetic but inexperienced campaigner from Mattoon, reported last week that he, too, had culled an endorsement -- from the union representing electric linemen in several of the district's counties.

Hill readily admits that the linemen have not traditionally been an active force in local politics, but adds, with his unfailing optimism, "I'm kind of hoping they'll have a real impact this time."

Even Timothy Thut (pronounced "toot", the fourth Democrat and the campaign's solitary liberal, garnered an endorsement recently, but like everything else in Thut's hapless campaign, it didn't work out as well as he had hoped.

Thut is the only candidate here who deres say an encouraging word about the Equal Rights Amendment. His support for it earned Thut a promise of support from a leading female politician in a major county. Unfortunately, the woman is a Republican.

'Among the Republicans, the most industrious seeker of prominent supporters has been Dan Crane, the Danville dentist who is a leader of the local party's right wing.

Crane sought, and won, a letter of support from Earl Butz, the former secretary of agriculture, who is still something of a hero to most of the 22nd's farmers.

Through the intercession of his brother, Rep. Philip M. Crane, a Republican from the Chicago suburbs, Dan Crane has also gained the support of two conservative congressmen, Steven Symms and Mickey Edwards. But since Symms is from Idaho, and Edwards is an Oklahoman, neither claims a following of any size in southeastern Illinois.

Roscoe Cunningham, a loquacious state legislator from Lawrenceville, has done best in capturing Republican endorsements in the 22nd. He has strong support from most of the 10 counties he represents in the legislature.

Cunningham has also striven mightily to win the backing of Illinois' governor, "Big Jim" Thompson, whose ability to lure independent voters to the GOP ticket makes him a demigod of sorts in Republican circles here. But Thompson has remained diplomatically aloof so far.

And then there is Gene Stunkel.

Gene Stunkel's contacts in the district's Republican Party were nil when he entered the congressional campaign last year. He set out early to remedy that deficiency by calling, again and again, on GOP leaders throughout the 22nd.

"He was down here last fall whenever we had a county committee meeting," says Barbara Marfell, of Hillsboro, the chairman of Montgomery County's Republican Women's Club.

"I was impressed that he came all the way down here," Marfell recalled recently. "It's a four-hour drive from Danville. And he seemed smart, and, you know, attractive. I was impressed."

Stunkel noticed Marfell's interest, and began talking to her. Before she knew it, she was Montgomery County coordinator of the Stunkel for Congress Committee.

Each time Stunkel came back to Hillsboro, Marfell saw to it that he spent some time with a local Republican VIP or two.

Gradually, a few others were recruited to the cause-then, later in January, Marfell won a key convert: Bob Hermsmeyer, a laconic engineer from Litchfield who is chairman of Montgomery's Republican Central Committee.

With Hermsmeyer, Marfell and a few Montgomery County precinct leaders on his side, Stunkel, began urging the county to issue an early endorsement in the congressional race. To his delight, he found that Hermsmeyer readily agreed.

"The way I see it," Hermsmeyer explained, "if a man wins in November, and it's time to give out jobs, he's going to remember a county that went for him back before the primary." tr for add 9

While Stunkel was making progress, his opponents had largely ignored Montgomery. Even Crane, who might have found natural allies in the county's strong Reaganite bloc, lost favor because of his failure to cultivate its support.

Accordingly, when Hermsmeyer scheduled a committee meeting for Feb. 23, Stunkel knew he had a major coup in the making. He would take the others by surprise.

And then Stunkel blew it.

Campaigning in the area last Wednesday, the happy Stunkel couldn't resist telling people that something big was going to happen in Montgomery the next day. That may have impressed his listeners, but it also gave away the ball game.

Late Wednesday night, Roscoe Cunningham got a call from a worried friend: that Stunkel had pulled a fast one, the friend said, and Roscoe had better work fast to head him off.

Roscoe worked fast. He contacted Crane, the Danville dentist, and the two adversaries agreed to work together to stop the common foe. They resolved that neither would seek the Montgomery endorsement; rather, both would try to convince the committee members that any endorsement now would be premature.

When the 35 members of Montgomery's Republican committee arrived at their meeting hall Thursday evening, they found the place engulfed in campaign regalia: Yardsticks stamped "Cunningham," Stunkel's tote bags and key chains. Crane's reprint of the cherished Earl Butz endorsement.

Each candidate made a brief appeal. An angry Crane and a nervous Cunningham pleaded for more time. A confident Stunkel noted that he would remember Montgomery County after he won in November.

Montgomery County, however, is a cautious place, and when the candidates left their fate to the committee, it was decided quickly that Montgomery should bide its time. Even Stunkel's supporters had to agree that it was probably too early for the committee to commit itself.