Washington — She was only a three-term US representative little known outside of political circles. But as she sat in the congresswomen's hideaway suite in the Capitol earlier this year, Geraldine Anne Ferraro unmistakably exuded the air of someone on the move.
Near her on a table was a campaign button touting her for vice-president which an admirer had just given her. The name ''Ferraro'' was misspelled. But the Queens, N.Y., congresswoman was pleased with the idea, even if she didn't appear to take it very seriously.
In fact, she said that one of the reasons she was happy about the speculation was ''quite frankly, I'm enjoying the fact that I'm getting a little more publicity and name recognition,'' because she was considering a try for the Senate in 1986.
Ms. Ferraro, who assuredly will not have to worry about name recognition again, appears to be blasting out of the unknown to become the Democratic choice for vice-president.
Born in Newburgh, N.Y., in 1935, she moved to the South Bronx after the passing of her Italian immigrant father. Her mother, Antonetta, supported her and her brother by working as a seamstress in the garment district.
From that humble start, Representative Ferraro won a scholarship to a private Roman Catholic school and worked her way through Marymount College in New York by selling handkerchiefs in Bloomingdale's department store. She earned her law degree in the evenings at Fordham University while teaching school in the daytime.
And as if to complete the Cinderella tale, she married John A. Zaccaro, a prosperous real estate broker, and had three children. She kept her maiden name, she has said, out of gratitude to her mother.
But the story only begins there, since Ms. Ferraro left her private law practice in 1974 to become an assistant district attorney in Queens, working under a cousin, Nicholas Ferraro. She took cases involving child abuse, domestic violence, and rape that have helped shape her liberal views in politics. And it was her prosecuting job that gave her the ''tough Democrat'' image to win a seat in Congress in 1978 in this blue-collar district known as the home of TV's Archie Bunker.
Although at the start of the congressional race the political pros didn't take this first-timer seriously, she ran an effective campaign that swamped other Democrats and her Republican opponent. And while she has been outspokenly liberal in a conservative district, the feisty Ferraro has apparently won her constituents' hearts. She won reelection by 73 percent in 1982.
Not long after she arrived in Washington, the Ferraro star began rising. She became secretary of the House Democratic Caucus, a slot reserved for women, with the help of one of her most potent fans, Speaker of the House Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts.
The Speaker was one of the first top party members to endorse Ms. Ferarro for vice-president.
''Gerri hasn't been here that long, and she's done incredibly well,'' says Rep. Barbara B. Kennelly (D) of Connecticut, who calls Ms. Ferraro ''a woman for all seasons.''
Ms. Ferraro has not always gotten her way on Capitol Hill. She tried to win a place on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee but failed. And recently she toyed with the idea of running for House Democratic Caucus chairman but found that she was already far behind the male candidates.
She has made her mark on the Democratic Party, however, playing a major role in a party reform commission last year and then winning the highly visible post of platform chairman. She vowed to keep the platform broad and noncontroversial and has apparently succeeded. Only five minority planks will go before the convention in San Francisco next week.
Rep. Gillis W. Long of Louisiana, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, has praised her for her intelligence and hard work. ''Gerri got her reputation by working for it,'' he said earlier this year.
If there has been carping, it has centered on Ms. Ferraro's concentration on politics instead of issues. She responded by winning a seat on the House Budget Committee and an opportunity to prove she had a grasp of the economy.
''She has good political instincts,'' Rep. Martin Frost (D) of Texas, a fellow Budget Committee member, has said of her.
Her political views are liberal, though tempered by her blue-collar constituents. She is somewhat more moderate than the man who picked her as his running mate.
Like Walter Mondale, she backs legislation requiring foreign autos to have American parts. She has a liberal voting record of 75 percent, as rated by Americans for Democratic Action.
She has consistently voted pro-choice on abortion issues, despite her heavily Catholic and antiabortion district and despite her own devout Catholicism. But she has voted for a constitutional amendment against busing for school desegregation. She also favors tax credits for private school tuition and has voted for prayer in public schools.