The Candidate is just getting started on The Speech and the time has come to warm up the audience with The Joke. Rep. Philip Crane (R-Ill.) launches into the story with so much enthusiasm and good cheer that the dinner guests here in eastern Iowa have no inkling that he has already told it this day at breakfast in Michigan, at lunch in Wisconsin, and at three receptions that were squeezed into the schedule along the way.

"It seems there was a dispute between heaven and hell," Crane begins, his handsome, angular face crinkling into a smile. "A dispute abut who had to repair the fence between the two.

"So hell sent heaven this nasty letter that said, 'On the advice of legal counsel, we insist the fence is your responsibility.' And heaven sent back a nice note saying, 'Not having access to legla counsel, we have to agree.'"

The audience here loves it, as the audiences everywhere do, and after a few more quips ("When Jimmy Carter gets through with the dollar, they'll call it the J. C. Penny"), Crane has them firmly in his grasp. They are interested; Crane has their attention. That is an accomplishment in itself.

The nation's voters have barely finished saying "good riddance" to the 1978 elections, and Philip Crane is barn storming the country working to get them interested in a new campaign-his race for president in 1980.

Crane, a very conservative Republican, knows he has to win attention now, because he has entered the White House sweepstakes from a difficult position: as a little-know member of the minority faction of the minority party. Many political pros would write off Crane's quest as impossible-if it weren't candidte, a Democrat named Carter, who was launching a similarly uphill drive at this time four years ago.

For that matter, Crane has some assets exceeding those Jimmy Carter could command at the outst of his campaign.

The Crane campaign has the direct mail wizardry of fund-raiser Richard Viguerie, and that should guarantee enough cash to finance two years of all-out effort.

In the four months since he decleared his candidacy, Crane has raised $650,000 from 26,000 contributors although fund-raising expenses have consumed about a third of the cash. The candidate says he can garner up to $15 million, without taking federal matching funds, before the Republican National Convention in July 1980.

In addition, Crance has enlisted a nationwide corps of conservative supporters to work in his local organizing efforst. Most of these people, who worked with Crane in Reagan-for-president campaign or in the battle against the Panama Canal treaties, are proven political activists.

By standing on the shoulders of this Reaganite network, Crane has got his campaign airborne quickly. But in doing so, he knows, he could be setting himself up for a harsh fall.

If Ronald Reagan enters the 1980 race-and most Republicans say he will, most likely within the next six months-Crane is sure to lose some of his early backing. At best, Crane acknowledges, it will be a minor erosion. At worst, it could turn into an avalanche.

Regardless of what his present backers do, Crane himself will face a delicate decision if he is confronted with a Reagan candidacy

If Crane quickly gives up his own presidential drive, he risks alienating those who have contributed money and hard work to the campaign. But if he stays in the race against Reagan, he will be accused of splitting the GOP's right wing.

Thus Crane, who seems more willing than most politicians to give direct answers to tough questions, is uncharacteristically circumspect when Reagan's name comes up. Crane says he will stay in the presidential race right to the end," but then adds the assurance that "I would never do anything to spilt conservatives in our party."

For the time being, Crane is moving ahead as if the Reagan problem did not exist.

The first step in his plan for capturing the GOP nomination involves lining up committed supporters within the party's reaganite wing. If he can establish himself there, he believes he can start wooing the Republican moderates.

Crane, an optimistic, energetic 48-year-old who clearly loves the game of politics, says he has already made significant gains among former Reagan supporters in New Hampshire, Iowa, and Florida-three states that will be amond the first to choose convention delegates in 1980.

The Iowa precinct caucuses in January 1980 will be the first formal meetings in the country to choose delegates to the national conventions that year. A strong showing in the Iowa caucuses could propel Crane out of obscurity-just as they did for Carter in 1976.

The Iowa Republican Party is closely split between moderates, who supported Gerald R. Ford in 1976, and conservatives, who backed Reagan. At the national convention, 19 Iowa delegates supported Ford and 17 favored Reagan.

At least five of those Reagan delegates now say they will back Crane's candidacy in 1980, even if Reagan makes another try for the nomination. In addition, Crane has the open backing of some prominent conservative leaders, including Leroy Corey, founder of a statewide caucus of conservative activists and a hard worker for Reagan in 1976.

On a visit this fall here in Monticello, a farm town 135 miles east of Des Moines, Crane picked up a double dividend when he won a public commitment from Elaine Smith.

Smith, the Jones County Republican chairman, is a cherry grandmother with the savvy of a veteran politican. She promised Crane double duty: Firsr here in her home town, and also in Florida, where she spends four months of the year-and where Crane needs to score well in the state's early primary.

Crane has made almost no inroads into Iowa's moderate GOP faction. But then, hardly any Republican hopeful has. Most moderates seem to be waiting for Gov. Bob Ray to decide whether or not he will run as a favorite son in the Iowa precinct caucuses in January 1980.

In addition to his organizing efforts among hard-core conservatives, Crane has been traveling nearly full-time since declaring his candidacy in August to enchance his name recognition around the country. His campaign plane, "The Early Birs," has already been ot 37 states.

the message he brings to audiences everwhere is relentlessly economic. In his standard speech, there is no mention of the Panama Canal, or national defense, or welfare fraud, or any other standard conservative cause. Crane focuses instead on the plight of the dollar, the need for limits on federal taxes and spending, and the "supreme importance" of a balanced federal budget. (He does not, however, offer a specific plan for eliminating the federal deficit.)

The speech leaves the impression of a politican swimming with the current of post-Proposition 13 public opinion. But that impression is not exactly accurate. During his nine years in Congress, Crane has consistently been far to right of the mainstream-even within his own party.

On many issues over the years-in his opposition to the Cldan Air Act and Clean Water Act, his demand for a return to the gold standard, his distaste for child labor laws, and his proposal to abolish the National Labor Reltions Board-Crane has found himself in a tiny minority.

The candidate does not deny his lonely stands on the stump. He readily admits, when asked, that only 10 members joined him in opossing the Clean Air Act. But he doesn't volunteer the information, either.

What he does volunteer is his intense concern about the nation's economic future and the need for a stern, conservative money manager in the White House to head off disaster.

The important issues in the 1980 campaign are going to be economic," Crane says. "And on those issues, the people are coming around to the realization that conservatives have been right all along. And that's why we're going to win."