Months ago, Gene and Sally Stunkel checked the long-range forecast for Tuesday, March 21 - election day. "Sunny and mild," the almanac said. And to the Stunkels it seemed a good omen. But then, last fall, when Gene's campaign for Congress was still a fresh, exciting venture, all the omens had seemed good.

Yesterday, as Stunkel forced his tired body out into a chilly, gray morning for one last day with the voters, he heard the radio report the latest forecast for primary day: cold and cloudy, with a good chance of rain.

It was appropriate. For the Stunkels, and for nearly everyone else involved here in Illinois' 22nd Congressional District, the exhausting weeks of campainging and the unshakeable fear of losing have taken a toll. The sunny dispositions and warm convictions of certain victory that marked the 22nd's seven candidates three months ago are clouding over.

The first votes in elections to choose the 96th Congress will be cast today when the people of Illinois - or a tiny percentage of them, if predictions are borne out - vote in the nation's earliest congressional primary. (The voters will also make selections for a full slate of state and local offices).

The farmers and factory hands who populate the 22nd District will be choosing among three Republicans and four Democrats hoping to replace 10-term Congressman George Shipley.

Stunkel, a Republican, committed himself to the race even before Shipley's surprise announcement last fall that he would not seek reelection.

It was an ambitious endeavor for a political neophyte such as Stunkel. But after 10 years of heady success in a string of business enterprises, the imposing, outgoing Stunkel was sure of political success as well. What made him run? "I'm a winner," he assured everyone.

Today, Stunkel still says he'll win - he can reel off vote projections that show him topping the Republican ticket in nearly every county - but now that assurance is a sometime thing.

Tossing in bed after a long day on the hustlings Stunkel sometimes comes face-to-face with a sick recognition that defeat - failure - is a possibility after all.

Both Gene and Sally Stunkel have been personally hurt by harsh newspaper coverage - particularly articles in three local papers reviewing details of litigation stemming from his businesses. Friends keep telling them the stories are unfair - lawsuits are not uncommon in Stunkel's field, real estate development - but he broods on them, and the worry has cut into the hard edge of his condience.

Dan Crane, the Danville dentist who is battling Stunkel in the GOP race, also has undergone a change of spirit.

Early in the campaign, he loved to tell audiences that he is one of three brothers running for Congress this year; but now there is a growing recognition that the Crane family passion may be his poison.

"Politics just isn't in my blood," he now says. "Campaigning - that's a drag. I'd rather be home with my kids."

Crane has worked hard to overcome his natural reserve, but he still feels uncomfortable when his campaign managers set him loose in a group of strangers.

"I'm the puppet," he said Saturday - sadly but not with bitterness. "They pull the strings and I say, 'I'm Charlie McCarthy and I want your vote.'"

Publicly, at least, Roscoe Cunningham, a veteran state legislator challenging Crane and Stunkel, admits to no misgivings. "Those two jaspers are working harder than I expected. My creditors are panicked. But we shan't lose our courage," he said.

Still, tension drive Cunningham to a bad blunder recently. Anxious for news to offset the endless press releases from the enemy camps, he told the press here he had the endorsement of Gov. James Thompson. He didn't - as Thompson's office made clear to inquiring reporters.

The story has gottne around to almost every GOP leader.

Although the Illinois primary comes before politicians in most other states even start serious campaigning, today's election is already a month too late for Don Watson, a soft-spoken Democrat from Olney at the district's southern border.

Watson has grown increasingly worried as his evident lead of last month has seemed to dissolve.

"Of course, "I'll be right disappointed if the people who said they were for me really aren't," he said with an unhappy shake of his head.

The reason for his worry is Terry Bruce, an energetic state senator who says he has come from behind to grab the lead in the Democratic race. But Bruce, too, admits to sleepless nights. "Yeah, that hurts your feelings when you think that 11 the people you've gone to might vote for the other guy," he said recently.

The only candidate with no second thoughts is Dave Hill, a young Democrat who still seems sure he'll achieve a political miracle when the votes are counted tonight.

"I've gone through an awful lot," he said jokingly the other day. "Like I totalled one car - went through the windshield, but I only sprained my ankle. After all that, I feel like I'm due to win one."