AS in the glittery days of Camelot, when John Kennedy hobnobbed with the stars, this year's presidential hopefuls are trying to make it big in Hollywood. Gary Hart enjoys rubbing shoulders with actors Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. Jack Kemp has won kudos from Mickey Rooney and Mike Conners. Paul Simon staged a big fund-raiser with Christopher Reeve (``Superman'') and Margot Kidder (``Lois Lane'') beside him. Robert Dole has Lynda Carter (``Wonder Woman''), Bernie Koppell (``Love Boat''), and Tony Danza (``Who's the Boss'') on his side. George Bush gets support from Rich Little.
Politicians, drawn to money and power like moths to a flame, cultivate ties to Hollywood's elite, including liberals like Morgan Fairchild, Barbra Streisand, and Ed Asner, or conservatives like Clint Eastwood, Tom Selleck, and Jimmy Stewart.
Presidential candidates are all over Hollywood, ``having small dinner parties nightly, hourly,'' says Tom Hayden, a California state representative, whose wife, Jane Fonda, plays a central role in political life here.
Mr. Hayden says politicians across the country now realize that television and movies, and the people who make them, have ``replaced the church, the bookstore, the school as the primary means of communication'' for millions of Americans.
Actor Charlton Heston, a conservative, recalls the words of Lenin: ``Film is the most powerful tool ever devised for shaping the mind of man.'' Mr. Heston adds: ``Of course, he was right.''
Ronald Reagan, a former actor, stunned many political experts by making a smooth transition from Hollywood to politics. Since his arrival in the capital, the Hollywood-Washington connection has grown. It is fueled by a revolution in communications - cable TV, satellites, videocassettes, camcorders, three-dimensional broadcasting - that shows no sign of abating.
The Hollywood-Washington tie is symbiotic. If Washington politicians blatantly curry favor in Tinseltown, this city returns the favor by flirting openly with Washington and politics.
Today, Hollywood often plays a starring role, whether the issue involves AIDS, Central America, the homeless, disarmament, war in outer space, weapons testing, or the future of the nuclear-power industry.
Morgan Fairchild and Elizabeth Taylor crisscross the country on a crusade against AIDS. Young actress Tracy Reiner makes a documentary film about the dangers of nuclear war. Martin Sheen gets arrested (again) for a protest against nuclear weapons. Jimmy Stewart speaks out for traditional moral values. Alexandra Paul (the movie ``Dragnet'') goes to Nevada to protest nuclear testing. Ms. Fonda organizes young actors into a small political army.
While Hollywood stars seek long-term political impact, Washington often uses this city for short-term political gain.
As Jack Kennedy knew, Hollywood stars can add sparkle and dash even to the image of a junior senator.
More important, Hollywood pumps money into dozens of races for the White House and Congress. Ed Asner, star of the former ``Lou Grant'' television series, puts it this way: ``If money is the mother's milk of politics, then California is the udder.''
In 1986, Ms. Streisand and her friends demonstrated Hollywood's dollar power. With Democrats battling to regain control of the Senate, she hosted a party fund-raiser at her home. The net: $7 million.
Hollywood has always had a hand in politics - right back to the early days. But it was often frowned upon. Movie moguls like Samuel Goldwyn scoffed at the notion that Hollywood had a duty to shape the national conscience, or make movies with political undertones.
``Messages are for Western Union,'' Goldwyn sniffed.
Hollywood still thinks of itself first as an entertainment capital. Americans go to the movies for fun on Saturday night. Preaching is for Sunday morning.
But Hollywood activists, such as Fonda, have long recognized the power of film. ``China Syndrome,'' which depicted an accident at a nuclear reactor, helped stifle the atomic power industry in the United States. ``All the President's Men'' fueled anger at the Republican White House and political legerdemain. A television movie, ``The Day After,'' infuriated many conservatives, while another, ``Amerika,'' angered liberals.
Often, films reflect the views of politically conscious people in Hollywood. Heston says:
``The overwhelming majority of the filmmaking community is sharply liberal. And I mean sharply liberal is the correct word. I would say [that includes] 80 percent of the decisionmakers in films.''
Screenwriter Jenny Neumann says liberal activists see Hollywood as a source of political power.
``If you win over the hearts and souls of the people, you've got it, especially the American people,'' says Miss Neumann. ``I've run into a lot of ex-hippies who've turned into yuppies who have found that the way to do it is to go underground into the system and work with the system'' to reach their political goals.
But actor Marshall Bell of the CBS television series ``Oldest Rookie'' thinks the liberal tilt of Hollywood may be exaggerated. ``It's not groovy to be conservative,'' he says. ``But I think [many actors] go right down to the polls and pull that [conservative] lever.''
Ironically, many hits such as ``Rambo,'' ``Top Gun,'' or even ``Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'' hardly reflect a left-liberal political agenda. Rather, they emphasize individual effort and old-fashioned patriotism.
A reason: The public likes it. And in Hollywood, as in any business community, the bottom line talks. If politics is an avocation here, making money is still Job 1.
The drive for money turns Hollywood into a town of political ``switch-hitters'' who can swing from either the left or right side of the plate, depending upon what is in vogue, says Mr. Asner, a liberal. ``They call themselves progressive, but when push comes to shove, far too many end up being centrists. [Hollywood] is not as progressive as Oregon.''
Morgan Fairchild says many performers are reluctant to let their views show. ``They're afraid they'll alienate some form of their public out there,'' she says.
Ms. Fairchild, who starred on TV's ``Falcon Crest,'' concedes that her liberal views clash with many of her fans. But she thinks the Hollywood community needs to speak out, despite the risk.
Asner, however, contends that political activity can be costly. He thinks his show was canceled several years ago by CBS because of his liberal views. President Reagan and conservatives were riding high at the time, and ``CBS was intimidated,'' he says.
A conservative Hollywood actress, asked about the dangers of political activity, says simply: ``I know for a fact that it has lost me several jobs.''
Asner sympathizes. ``We can't ever sneeze at the necessity to work,'' he says. ``The people who took jobs in `Amerika' really came in for some harsh criticism'' - some of it, Asner concedes, from himself. ``In retrospect, it's unfortunate. It's crimping freedom of speech.''
Despite some dangers, Hollywood is speaking up. Asner, Hayden, and others say the impact is being felt in at least five ways:
Producing politically oriented movies.
Endorsing political candidates.
Serving as role models.
Working for causes.
Politically conscious people in Hollywood are keenly concerned about the products coming out of this city - products that range from flag-waving (``Rocky IV'') to antiwar (``Platoon'') to thoughtful (``Close Encounters of the Third Kind'') to family and home (``E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial'').
Mr. Bell says that, although liberals are a major factor in Hollywood, they have been less successful in getting across their message to Middle America.
He says conservatives ``have a firm grasp on the lowest common denominator. It's called the mass. You have to have that.''
Neumann suggests that the really successful movies, often with traditional themes, have been motivated by principle. It touches a common element in the American mainstream - with characters who are ``larger than life, with a sincere chord.'' She observes that such characters are ``not afraid to look corny, or come out in favor of real morals.''
But she laments: ``You see very few Jimmy Stewart-like characters anymore.''
Some of the best work, she says, is being done by director Steven Spielberg, who attracts millions to movies without sex and violence, while treating themes of family, home, individuality - conservative themes.
Neumann says Mr. Spielberg's movies ``lift people out of constraints, lift them above themselves and say, `Yes, anything is possible, if only you believe.'''
But Neumann also gives credit to Fonda, Hollywood's foremost liberal, as a ``sincere person'' who ``speaks from the heart, and that makes her powerful.''
Political action reaches right down to younger actors, like Ms. Reiner and Ms. Paul. They belong to Young Artists United, a nonpartisan but largely liberal group supporting social responsibility among young people.
Paul says her political activism has already influenced her career. For example, she was offered a role in a movie that featured an abandoned ship loaded with chemical warfare weapons. The script called for the ship to be Soviet.
``I wouldn't have done the film if they kept it Russian,'' Paul says. ``It sends such a negative message to the world. I can't give that message.''
Over the long run, these young activists hope to be in key places in Hollywood - influencing American thought and politics. Daniel Sladek, co-founder of Young Artists United and director of development at Spectacor Films, says:
``By unifying a thousand people, if we keep this energy and stimulus going, in 10 years when Alexandra Paul is a `Jane Fonda' and I am a studio executive, we're going to be the ones making the movies.''
Conservatives have no comparable effort here among actors.
``We are a tiny band,'' Heston says.
Tiny, perhaps. But in the battle for political influence, Hollywood's product includes as many conservative films as liberal ones, even if the creative community is liberal. In the struggle for influence across America, it looks like a draw - at least for now.