Gene Stunkel was so mortified that he left town: he has moved to Florida. Roscoe Cunningham was embarrassed, too (but only briefly). Dave Hill, as usual, was happy as pie. Calm Don Watson took it all in stride. And Tim Thut emerged a sadder but wiser man.

For the losers in the congressional primary election here in Illinois' 22nd district, the voting last March 21 meant the end of a way of life. For months their whole existence had been a frantic race for votes - an exhausting but exhilarating pursuit spiced with the heady awareness that a seat in Congress was there for the taking.

Primary day changed all that. The winners - Dr. Dan Crane, the Reaganite dentist who took the Republican nomination, and Terry Bruce, the amiable state senator who led the Democratic ballot - would fight on. The losers would have to make their peace with ordinary life again.

It was a chore Gene Stunkel had been putting off for weeks. But now the moving van had come, and there was no more time for delay. So Gene had spent a long day digging through his office deciding what to take and what to leave behind.

There was a drawer full of stationery bearing the letterheads of Gene's various investments here - he wouldn't be needing that any more. There was file on his fast-food business, "Genie's Wienies" - that, too, was fodder for the trash can now.

And then, in the back of a storeroom, Stunkel came upon a box full of doo-dads matchbooks, key chains, tote bags, and bumper stickers, all imprinted with a bold message that made him cringe: "Stunkel for Congress."

It had been 16 weeks since Gene Stunkel's maiden effort at politics had ended in disaster, but the memory was still as fresh in his mind as a new coat of black paint.

Stunkel had entered a three-way race for the Republican congressional nomination in the 22nd, a sprawling chunk of flatland in east central Illinois. After 10 years of success in business, the 35-year-old Stunkel thought himself certain to succeed in politics as well. He had told everybody he would win, and spent $100,000 of his own money to make sure he did.

But on primary day, Gene Stunkel, a winner all his life, had suffered the ultimate humiliation. He had run dead last.

In the weeks since, Gene had tried to forget, but it was futile. If he had only put his money into mailings instead of media advertisements, he kept saying, he could have won it easy. If he had only come out for a tax cut. If he had only - night after night he sat at the dinner table telling his family how he could have won.

But he had lost, and everyone knew it. That hurt badly.

Gene had spent most of his life in the valley here along the Illinois-Indiana border, and now all his friends - and his enemies, too - had seen him fail.

"Gene was sort of paranoid about it," his wife, Sally, said with a worried frown. "Like, I would come home and say 'I saw so-and-so in the mail today,' and Gene would start asking 'Did he say anything about me? Did he say anything about how bad Crane beat me?'"

Sally, an outgoing, gregarious sort, was hurt by the election as well. Gene had not even carried his own precinct, his own neighborhood. That meant some of their good friends must have voted against him. Sally couldn't forget that.

It was too much to face. With their three sons, Gene and Sally took off for a long April vacation in their apartment on the Atlantic in Boca [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]

For the Stunkels, Florida had always been an escape from the harsh weather and austere social life that marked winter on the Illinois plains. Now, suddenly, it was more than that. Nobody in Boca knew about the 22nd; nobody there had ever heard of Dan Crane. If Gene and Sally were ever to forget that election, they realized, Florida was the place they could do it.

By mid-May it was all decided. The boy's would be enrolled in a Florida school, Gene would look for a business to acquire, and they would leave the 22nd district behind.

And thus last month Gene Stunkel was back once more in his office here, packing up the remnants of his life in Illinois.

"Yeah, I saw that box of campaign stuff," he said recently. "Most of it just said 'Stunkel for Congress.' Nothing about Illinois, the 22nd District, or anything. I mean, you could use it anywhere.

"So I thought, you know, who knows? I put that box in van and sent it on down."

"Stunkel? Ah, yes, young Stunkel," Roscoe Cunningham said, rumbling out the words in the rich, deep voice he likes to use when uttering profundities.

"Mark my word-his scars will heal soon enough. That young jasper will be at it again. For once the lust is in the blood, it is extremely difficult to excise."

As his colleagues in the Illinois state legislature are quick to point out. Roscoe Cunningham, a 53-year-old Republican from Lawrenceville, a county seat near the southern edge of the 22nd district, is likely to wax profound on just about any subject.

But when the subject is the blood lust for politics, Roscoe is entitled. He has known subject all his life.

Over the past two decades Cunningham's love for partisan combat has drawn him into a dozen elections for local and state offices, with considerable success. And so last winter, when the 22nd district's seat in Congress came open, Roscoe gave up a safe spot in the legislature to run for the GOP congressional nomination.

And Cunningham, too, came out a loser.

"I was shock beyond description," Roscoe said recently during a post-mortem on the campaign. "That Dr. Crane - I never saw him coming. The whole thing comes down to overfidence: this is a sin in politics, and I was guilty of it.

Roscoe and his wife, Kay, were stunned and bitter on election night. But the Cunninghams' characteristic good humor came back soon enough.

Roscoe, after all, had to return to the legislature to battle Democrats for the remainder of his term. "The press called me a 'lame duck,'" he said, "but I prefer to consider myself a wounded eagle."

Quickly things got back to normal, and by last month Roscoe had told the voters in Lawrence County that he would be a candidate for the legislature again in 1980.

"You've got to let them know you haven't quit," he explained later."No, you don't quit in politics. No matter what plans the voters may have for you, in your own mind you must never quit."

If anyone were to quantify the losses sustained in the 22nd's primaries last March the champion loser would probably be Dave Hill.

Hill, a 26-year-old neophyte from Mattoon, near the center of the district, ran a disant third in the Democratic primary. But that was not all.

Hill gave up a job he loved to enter the race. During the campaign he spent his life savings, ran up a $2,000 debt, totaled two cars (sustaining major injuries), and was juilted by the girl he had hoped to marry.

"It was the greatest experience of my life" the cheerful Hill said recently, "I was loving every minute of it. You know, you're meeting people, and giving speeches almost every night. I even got pretty good at telling jokes. I could never tell a joke right before."

Hill had entered the 22nd's primary not to win, but to learn. And although he was, frankly, disappointed at the result, even that was not enough to quench his irrepressible optimism.

"My mom was worried that I might be embarrassed, you know, 'cause all my friends in Mattoon would know I got beat so bad," Dave said later.

"But most people - I don't think they even knew. For a couple of weeks after the election, people kept coming up to me and saying, 'Dave, good luck in the primary - when is it?'"

About a month after the election, Dave took advantage of his unemployed status to go to Washington to visit friends. He had been in the capital a week when he heard that the National Farm Bureau was looking for a lobbyist.

"It was sort of incredible. They needed someone who knew about Illinois and was familiar with politics.

And I thought, 'Hey! That's me.' So I went in and I got the job."

The Farm Bureau dispatched Dave Hill to Capitol Hill, where he is happy as pie persuading members of Congress to support farm bills. "Way I see it," he says, "of all the people who ran in the primaries in the district. I'm the first one to go to work in Congress."

From Tim Thut, too, the 22nd District's Democratic primary was learning experience, but the lesson was not exactly the one he had expected.

Tim Thut (pronounced "toot"), a serious-minded 34-year-old lawyer, businessman, and inventor, had sold his smong filter store in Los Angeles and come hom in Charleston, Ill., last winter as soon as he realized that the district's seat in Congress was up for grabs this year."

hut perceived, correctly, that his opponents in the Democratic race would avoid firm stands on the issues. Thus he devised a contrasting strategy - he would take definitive positions on the issues that mattered to him, and win the support of all who agreed.

On paper, it was sensible enough, but in practice, Thut's scheme had a flaw. For the 22nd's conservative electorate, the stands he took so prominently were all precisely wrong. His support of the Equal Rights Amendment, the Panama Canal treaties, and publicly financed abortion made him a pariah among the people in the district.

Two months before the primary, Thut said recently, he knew he had no chance to win. "But I had to stay in until the end to make it look right on my resume. That's the practicality of the thing.

"Then when it was over, and I finished last, I came right back to L.A. That's what I learned in that campaign. I can't go back to Illinois anymore, I was born there and all, but I don't represent the feelings there."

For three months, Thut has been looking, at a leisurely pace, for a new job in Los Angeles. He is in no hurry, because he has some money to tide him over, and he wants to think about his future.

"I really like the political arena," he says. "I think that's where the power is. It's kind of in my blood now, and I'm going to try to get started in politics out here."

"I'll tell you something about Don Watson." Don Watson said to a visitor at his home in Olney, Ill. "People around here will tell you - I'm real steady. I take things in stride."

As self-assessments go, it was remarkably accurate. Watson, a 45-year-old Democrat, had taken a calm, laconic approach to his campaign for the 22nd's congressional nomination. And when, on election day, he was defeated by state Sen. Terry Bruce, Don had taken the defeat calmly, too.

Watson had been genuinely surprised by the result.As administrative assistant to and brother-in-law of the district's retiring congressman, George Shipley, Watson had enjoyed the support of most county Democratic chairmen. That, he thought, should have assured victory.

But defeat, when it came, was not the end of the world. "Hell, I've been in politics for 20 years," Don said when the results were in. "Sometimes you lose, that's all. I'll survive."

After a short vacation. Watson was back in his office in Olney, plugging away at his work and looking forward, in his quiet, steady way, to the future.

"Going to Congress would have been nice," he said. "But I'm not going, so I'll just find something else to do."