When it comes to investing in political candidates, corporate America finds itself in an odd quandary this season: all dressed up with no place to go.

It's not that they lack for business-oriented congressional candidates to support. The landscape is fairly overrun with them.

The problem, if you want to call it that, is that business can't find a suitable crop of targets.

What made 1980 such a breakthrough campaign year for the nation's burgeoning business political action committees is that they moved beyond the familiar cover-your-access contributions to incumbents. They began, for the first time in a coherent and coordinated way, to funnel "risk money" to challengers.

The idea was to change the face of Congress instead of merely buying the attention of those already there.

It worked out so well that as the 1982 election approaches and as business hunts for new conquests, it bumps into a candidate universe overstocked with vulnerable free-enterprise freshmen and already purged of the shakiest of the old-line liberals.

"I'm afraid this just isn't going to be the year of the challenger," laments Bernadette Budde, political director of Business-Industry Political Action Committee, which serves as one of the intelligence arms of an increasingly sophisticated network of 2,028 (and counting) corporate and trade association PACs.

While those navigating the business PAC movement may chafe at the glamorlessness of underwriting incumbents this year, the fact is that business has never before been so big and powerful a player in the congressional sweepstakes.

* Business PACs have already given congressional candidates $16.3 million in this election cycle, which began Jan. 1, 1981, according to Federal Election Commission records. The sum is triple the contributions of organized labor and 10 times the contributions of the much-publicized independent and ideological PACs such as the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC). Just six years ago, unions outraised and outspent business.

* If current projections hold, business with its usual surge of late money will invest up to $60 million in congressional candidates by election day this year, a 50 percent increase over its record-setting pace of 1980.

* The typical winning candidate in 1980 received 35 percent of his or her campaign money from PACs of all kinds, most of them based outside the state or district, and about 22 percent from business PACs alone. Those percentages will continue upward in 1982.

* No matter how fast the supply of business political money grows, it never seems to keep pace with the demand. In an era when $500,000 congressional campaigns are not uncommon, rare is the candidate who can afford not to sup at business' table.

One sign of the times: Last month the most recent addition to the growing band of umbrella groups for business PACs--the National Association for Association Political Action Committees--threw itself a modest wine-and-cheese reception on Capitol Hill. Some 80 congressmen and senators turned up in response to a form invitation, outnumbering the PAC managers in attendance by better than 2 to 1.

"It was kind of embarrassing," said one of the organizers of the lopsided turnout.

* The bigger business PACs are for the first time trying to master the one area of electoral involvement where they still lag far behind organized labor: providing hands-on, nuts and bolts campaign assistance.

The National Association of Realtors, for example, which hopes to raise $4 million alone in this campaign, is also pushing a program to get 50,000 of its members to spend at least 24 hours this fall working on the campaigns of NAR-supported candidates.

"Our people know their community, they know how to work the phone, they're naturals in a campaign," says the NAR's Richard Thaxton.

What are the PACs buying for their money? Is it access, is it votes, or is it a subtle web of dependency somewhere in the gray area between?

On one issue after another in the 97th Congress, watchdog groups such as Common Cause and Public Citizen have chronicled the high correlation between campaign contributions and votes. A sampling:

* Eighty-three percent of the congressmen who voted to kill a proposed used car consumer protection regulation got campaign money from the National Automobile Dealers Association PAC.

* Ninety-seven percent of the sponsors of a bill to exempt professional groups from antitrust laws received a total of $1.1 million since 1979 (or an average of $6,145 apiece) from the three major medical profession PACs, those of the American Medical Association, the American Dental Association and the American Optometric Assocation.

* House members who voted with the dairy lobby on a key subsidy amendment to the farm bill received an average of $1,600 apiece from the major dairy PACs since January, 1981. Those who voted against dairy subsidies got an average of $200.

* Six major bank, finance company and creditor PACs that have been lobbying to tighten the laws on personal bankruptcy have given $704,295 since the beginning of the 1980 campaign to 255 of the 269 cosponsors of their bill. The same PACs gave $282,859 to non-cosponsors in the same period.

Those who champion PACs say it's only natural that monied interest groups and the candidates they support will see issues the same way; those troubled by the growth of PACs see a more insidious relationship.

"How many times have you heard our colleagues tell you they were 'giving' their vote to an interest group?" asked Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.), one of the sponsors of a bill to place a $70,000 cap on the total PAC contributions any congressional candidate can receive in a given campaign. At present there is no limit on the total.

"And how many times have we asked ourselves, 'What price will I pay if I oppose this group?' "

Ironically, the whole business PAC phenomenon is a byproduct of one of Congress' periodic passes at cutting back on the impact of money on politics.

It was in the mid 1970s, after the new public financing laws had effectively frozen them out of the presidential contests but for the first time allowed them to solicit political funds from their employes, that businesses first discovered the potential of the PAC.

Since the early part of the century, corporations have been barred from making political contributions directly. In the pre-Watergate days, the usual dodge was for executives to make large personal contributions--for which, presumably, they were reimbursed by their company.

But while Congress was closing that loophole with one hand, it was making it unnecessary with the other. Now, through the vehicle of a PAC, a business can collect political contributions from its employes and then dispense the money to as many candidates as it wishes in chunks of up to $5,000 per candidate per campaign.

The PAC laws were pushed by organized labor, which thought it was fashioning a system that would guarantee unions a decisive edge over business in the political money game. Unions, after all, had been raising political money in the PAC style for decades.

But as with so much new legislation, the expectations were quickly overtaken by the higher Law of Unintended Consequences.

Corporations, after some clarifying administrative and court rulings, got the hang of the PACs' potential and began soliciting their managerial employes, who are obviously better able to contribute than union members. (Even with the recent growth, though, the typical corporate PAC receives contributions from only 20 percent of the employes it solicits, and the contributions average less than $100 per person per year.)

Meanwhile, business trade associations, especially those representing such broad-based, well-heeled groups as doctors, lawyers, realtors and auto dealers, found themselves ideally suited for PACs. The rush was on.

In the early years, the great preponderance of business money went to incumbents, especially to powerful committee chairmen. When those chairmen were liberal Democrats, the pattern rankled such apostles of free enterprise as John Kochevar, who launched the Chamber of Commerce's aggressive political program in 1976.

But slowly things began to change. Some of the industry group PACs, led by the oil and gas industry, which is loaded with fervent free enterprisers and this year will account for roughly a quarter of all business PAC dollars, began "political wildcatting"--damning the risk of angering incumbents and giving to ideologically pure challengers.

Not all business, of course, has followed suit. Government contractors, especially in the defense industry, rarely have showed much ideological tilt in their giving. They need access and protection on both sides of the aisle.

Overall, though, there has been an increased ideological coloration to the business PAC giving, best reflected in the increase, up to a record 39 percent in 1980, in the business money that went to challengers or candidates for open seats.

This drift is of obvious concern to the Democrats, who fear the business PAC movement most when it opts for risk over access. For the past 18 months, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Tony Coelho (D-Calif.) has been sermonizing to the business PACs: "Don't let your ideology get in the way of your business judgment."

The records show, however, that business has always been more inclined than labor toward bipartisanship. Year in and year out, unions give more than 90 percent of their PAC money to Democrats, while last year business gave just 59 percent of its money to Republicans.

"I think labor has made a terrible mistake, trying to buy itself a party," says Kochevar. "It's boxed in, without any room to maneuver on the other side of the aisle."

But at the same time, Kochevar makes it clear that only certain kinds of Democrats should be allowed at business' table.

"If Tony wants us to give to more Democrats, tell him to send us more Phil Gramms," he said, referring to the leading Texas "Boll Weevil" who has helped steer President Reagan's economic programs through Congress. Gramm got $163,000 in business PAC money in 1980.

"Tony can talk till he's blue in the face, there's no way we're going to turn our backs on some of these Republicans we elected last year," adds Budde.

What worries the Democrats, as much as the sheer volume of business money, is the way the business PACs have learned to target their riches. The lesson the PACs learned in 1980 was to move in packs--to identify winnable and marginal races around the country and then to put out a nationwide call for the dollars.

Thus, the four largest benefactors of businesss PAC money in 1980 were relatively obscure Republican challengers running for Senate seats in rural states represented by liberal senators. The incumbents were George McGovern of South Dakota, John Culver of Iowa, Birch Bayh of Indiana and Frank Church of Idaho.

All four of their challengers received more than $500,000 from the business PACs, and all are in the Senate today: James Abdnor of South Dakota, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, Dan Quayle of Indiana and Steve Symms of Idaho.

This year there are other liberal targets in the Senate up for reelection, including Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.). But because their opponents are weak, or because the failings of the economy have made them less vulnerable, the business PACs have for the most part decided it's not cost effective to invest in their challengers.

Instead, they are concentrating on shoring up the freshman class of 1980. For example, Rep. James Coyne (R-Pa.), who narrowly won his suburban Philadelphia seat from environmentalist Peter Kostmayer in 1980, is facing a tough reelection challenge from the man he deposed. Business PACs, which invested heavily in the first Coyne-Kostmayer campaign, will pump an additional $250,000 into the rematch.

PAC proponents make no apologies for these investments. And they see the proliferation of business PACs as a healthy development in the Madisonian sense that the most effective way to check the influence of a single interest group is to let a thousand interest groups bloom.

The counter argument is that business PACs tend to have similar agendas, and that the overall growth of PACs has weakened the political parties and led to the factionalization of the public policy-making process.

But that side of the debate is lost on most in the business PAC movement, who find themselves "baffled. . . by the sinister context in which we are protrayed," according to Gregg Ward, who runs a PAC for the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Association.

"We thought all along we were wearing the white hats," he recently told a congressional oversight panel as he described how his association's PAC had sparked a new interest and participation among his members in grass-roots political activism.

After he had listened to the civics lesson for a while, a skeptical Rep. Al Swift (D-Wash.), no darling of the business PACs, was moved to comment drily: "Any time some executive wants to come out and help the union guys silk screen my campaign posters, them them I'm ready."

The remark drew guffaws, but as corporate America flexes its muscles for the fall campaign, it's not clear who'll laugh last.