THE candidates are off and running -- to the bank. At barbecues, cocktail parties, black tie galas, and genteel arm-twisting sessions, the checkbooks are opening.
The presidential candidates, and their parties, are collecting campaign contributions as if 1996 were right around the calendar. According to the Federal Election Commission, the Republican National Committee raised $22 million in the first three months of the year.
The Democrats claim fund-raising ''is going better than expected for a nonelection year.'' President Clinton is expected to begin fund-raising for his own campaign soon.
Earlier this month, movie mogul Steven Spielberg hosted a $50,000-per-couple party for the Democratic National Committee in Los Angeles.
Back at Hollywood East -- the Big Apple -- there is also some big money to be scarfed up. Last week, for example, GOP bigwigs chipped in $1.5 million for Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas at a Waldorf-Astoria dinner.
The Dole effort followed another Waldorf $1,000-a-pop fundraiser for Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee and secretary of education. For their money, the 500 attendees got filet of beef, grilled shrimp, and the piano playing of the candidate.
''He's just dynamite -- he plays classical and the regular stuff,'' says William Schreyer, a dinner co-chairman.
One day before Mr. Alexander's fete, Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas was at the Waldorf pumping hands. He collected $520,000. The senator's benefactors included such local money men as former Treasury Secretary William Simon, grocery chain heir Lew Lehrman, and investor Joe Fogg.
It's not surprising the candidates come here to raise money. In the past, Wall Street's wallets have financed many a campaign -- particularly before the federal limit of $1,000 per contribution. ''To paraphrase a famous bank robber, you go where the money is,'' says Ted Welch, finance chief for Alexander.
Thus, high-powered New Yorkers are finding their mailboxes stuffed with solicitations. When he returned from a two week overseas trip, Richard Torrenzano found his mailbox filled with letters from political candidates.
''I've never seen as organized an effort and such a volume of request at one time,'' says Mr. Torrenzano, chief executive of the Torrenzano Group Ltd., a communications and public policy firm.
Robert Dilenschneider, who runs his own public relations firm, estimates he has received at least 30 requests for contributions. ''All these people want to be my best friends,'' he says.
He has noticed that the money pitches are more creative and actually emphasize candidates' stands on issues.
For candidates with low New York profiles, it is a challenge to raise money. Alexander has utilized his contacts from when he was secretary of education. That's when he met then-chairman of Merrill Lynch, Mr. Schreyer, who had been invited to Washington for the introduction of Alexander's attempt to improve school curriculum.
Alexander stayed in touch and ultimately asked Schreyer to a Knoxville country inn to talk about the 1996 race. ''It was fun,'' recalls Schreyer who then started dialing his friends and contacts for the New York fundraiser.
Normally, the fund-raising slows during the summer. But Tamara Hallisey, a New York fund-raising consultant, expects the money hunt to continue in the Hamptons, summer playground for the city's patrons. ''Over the last two years, the events out on Long Island have gotten a lot bigger,'' she says.
The money rush is no surprise. Some candidates feel they need to raise up to $20 million to $25 million this year. In a sense, Welch says, the first quarter has been a ''primary'' to see which candidates could raise $5 million to be on schedule to raise $20 million for 1995.
The candidates are under pressure to raise this kind of money because next year 70 percent of the convention delegates will be chosen in a seven-week window. Candidates will need the resources to compete in many primaries at once. ''The primaries come at you like telephone poles on the side of a country road,'' says Gramm aide Gary Koops.