Dwarfed by massive walls of granite towering toward the bright blue bowl of Wyoming sky, the Cheney family's camper snaked alongside the sparkling waters of the Wind River through his spectacular example of natural architecture.

"It sure beats Shriley Highway," Dick Cheney said.

Cheney should know. In 1969, just out of the University of Wyoming, he left his home in Casper to take a brief apprenticeship in Washington, D.C. As often happens, the Washington interlude turned out to be not so brief. It was eight years before the Cheney family came back home.

Cheney's career in Washington raced upward on a slope as steep as the walls of Wind River Canyon. After brief service as a congressional staff aide, he moved to the executive branch under the patronage of Republican factotum Donald Rumsfeld, and went to the White House staff with Rumsfeld in the early 1970s.

In 1975, under Gerald R. Ford, Cheney became White House chief of staff. He was 34.

It was a heady period for the Cheneys. But they never forgot the beauty and wide-open opportunity of their native state. When Ford lost the 1976 election, Cheney came home to settle down in Casper and start a business career here.

That lasted less than a year. By December 1977, Cheney had packed his family into the camper and set out on an exhausting foray in an all-out effort to get back to Washington - as a freshman member of Congress.

Cheney, a friendly sort with an appetite for hard work, drove himself unmercifully on the campaign trail. He worked so hard that, last June, the 37-year-old candidate suffered a heart attack. He was hospitalized briefly, (but as soon as the doctors would let him he got back on the campaign trail.

All of which should resolve any question about how much Cheney wants to return to Washington. But there is still one fundamental question about the campaign. Why?

Why should a man who held one of the half dozen most influential jobs in government want to start over as freshman congressman in a minority party? And why should a devoted hiker and fisherman forsake the grandeur of Wyoming for the concrete and steel forest of Washington?

"Yeah, that's a good question," says Lynne Cheney, an outgoing Casper native who married Dick after a high school romance."Why leave here for Washington?

"Well, . . . Dick thinks it's important. Washington is the place where Dick can do something about the problems he cares about."

It takes only a few minutes with Cheney to see what his wife means. This is a man deeply in love with government and politics. He can talk for hours about this campaign or that piece of legislation or that other policy initiative or anything else that has to do with public affairs.

"I set out to be a political science teacher," Cheney said the other day in his thoughtful, frank manner. "My years in Washington sort of got in the way of that, but it all ties in. What I want to do is political stuff."

When Cheney returned here last year, he thought his "political stuff" was over for a while. But in October, Rep. Teno Roncalio, the state's popular Democratic at-large congressman, announced his retirement from politics.

The empty seat beckoned. It looked like a good year for Republicans in Wyoming. Cheney seemed to have as good a chance as anyone to win the Republican congressional nomination.

"So I said, what the hell," Cheney recalls. "I'm going to take a shot sometime - why not now?"

People keep telling Cheney that the progression from top presidential aide to the bottom of the congressional roster constitutes a career step downward. Cheney insists that's not so.

"When you're in a staff job, you're never yourself," he explains.

"It's humbling - you're just somebody's hired gun, and even if that somebody happens to be the president of the United States, there's not much you can do on your own.

"Congress is different.You're responsible for your own decisions. You act for yourself."

Cheney's Washington experience gave him considerable cachet as a congressional candidate - he is the only White House chief of staff Wyoming has ever produced - and until two months ago he seemed headed for an easy win in the Sept. 12 primary.

Then, after a particulary long day's campaigning, Cheney felt a sharp pain in his chest. He was rushed to the hospital, diagnosed as a heart-attack victim, and ordered to rest at home for at least six weeks.

Six weeks later, Cheney was back in the campaign camper. But the lead had dwindled.

"Until that heart attack, I don't think there was any doubt that Dick had it," says Ed Cencabaugh, a longtime Republican from Cheyenne. "But now a lot of people say he's got a young wife and two kids and he shouldn't make his family worry about another one."

Today, the ruddy-faced, athletically built Cheney looks as healthy as ever. He is working long days, as any candidate must in this state, where primary voters are scattered at a rate of about 0.6 voters per square mile. The passage through Wind River Canyon, for example, was part of a four-day jaunt that covered about 2,000 miles.

But the heart attack comes up at every campaign stop. Cheney now seems to be better known for his weeks in the hospital than for his two years in the White House.

When Cheney spoke to the North Bighorn-Lovell Chamber of Commerce the other day, he was introduced by Pat Schmidt, the editor of The Lovell Chronicle.

"I guess you all read about Dick Cheney," Schmidt said. "He's been in the papers a lot. But he says that heart attack problem is over."

Cheney's two closet opponents for the Republican nomination, Ed Witzenburger, a retired Air Force colonel who boasts of his own Washington experience as a Pentagon lobbyist on Capitol Hill, and Jack Gage, a lawyer whose father was a prominent Democratic politician here, don't mention the heart attack. They don't have to, because the subject seems to be raised by voters wherever Witzenburger and Gage go.

Whatever pain Cheney suffered from the heart attack, it seems clear that he will be at least equally heart-sick if the illness costs him the congressional nomination.

"I know you're one of 435 votes in the Congress." Cheney says, "but it's a vote. We have so many problems in this country and even that one vote could make me part of the answer."