THE swelling pack of 1996 Republican presidential hopefuls is pursuing endorsements like New Yorkers chasing taxis.
Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas is the current front-runner in the endorsement race. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas holds the No. 2 spot, while the rest of the GOP candidates lag well behind.
Endorsements are valuable to candidates for several reasons: They garner publicity and build momentum. Sometimes, they sway voters. But mostly, they attract money and campaign workers.
''The average voter could care less that some muckety-muck is endorsing a candidate,'' says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. ''But the high rollers do care, because they have only one thing in mind: Picking a winner.... If the experts point to one candidate as likely to win, the high rollers go with that candidate.''
The endorsement hunt is building toward six tumultuous weeks of key primaries next February and March. The truncated campaign makes fund-raising efforts and having a well-oiled political organization perhaps more urgent than ever before.
''Endorsements are as important as the amount of time and effort the endorser is going to put into the campaign,'' says Howard Opinsky, a spokesman for Senator Gramm's campaign. ''Some are important for fund-raising, some aren't.... Some are only one vote. But if they have a significant organization behind them, they're a lot more important.''
Senators and governors who run statewide races, and therefore have a broad range of contacts, are the most sought-after endorsers.
''Different people deliver different things,'' says Eddie Mahe, a Republican strategist. ''Governors can deliver something because they have a lot of political punch in their states. They control things people want, like contracts and board appointments.'' And they maintain permanent organizations.
''Senators tend to have weak to nonexistent organizations within their states.... Senators bring fund-raising capacity, since they are virtually nonstop money-raising machines.'' Governors can raise money in their own state, but ''any senator worth his salt'' raises money nationwide, Mr. Mahe says.
The importance of the New Hampshire primary makes endorsements from that state prized. Granite State Sen. Bob Smith has endorsed Gramm, while Sen. Judd Gregg has declared for Senator Dole. Gov. Stephen Merrill is neutral -- for now.
In the endorsement sweepstakes, Senator Dole has eight senators and three governors on board. (see accompanying chart). Five senators and two governors have endorsed Gramm. Sens. Richard Lugar and Arlen Specter each have the support of their state's other senator. Lamar Alexander has sewn up Tennessee. Massachusetts Gov. William Weld endorsed California Gov. Pete Wilson late last week.
But many find it worth their while to wait.
New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman has met with Governor Wilson, says spokesman Carl Golden. ''She intends to stay scrupulously neutral and watch each candidate, listen to each, talk to each if they want to come in and talk to her. At present, she does not intend to issue any kind of endorsement.''
Michigan's Gov. John Engler has met with several of the top contenders. Spokesman John Truscott says the governor will announce his decision in late spring or early summer. ''He says he will go with his gut,'' Mr. Truscott says.
Endorsers generally cannot deliver the votes they could earlier in the century, when machine politics were more common. The exception is New York, where GOP leaders are using the state's arcane primary rules to keep Dole's rivals off the ballot. This would ensure the Kansan all the votes from New York's large delegation. Gramm, Wilson, Senator Specter and Rep. Bob Dornan have jointly written to Gov. George Pataki asking that state law be changed so more candidates can qualify. But such a change appears unlikely.
Mr. Sabato warns that endorsements can give a false picture of a campaign's strength. Sen. Edmund Muskie had more than 80 percent of all major Democratic Party endorsements in 1972, ''but his candidacy fell apart....''
''We're actually seeing a pattern similar to '72, which ought to concern Senator Dole,'' Sabato says. ''He's got to remember that endorsements do not equal votes.''
Some 1996 GOP Presidential Endorsements
Governors: Terry Branstad, Iowa; George Pataki, N.Y.; George Voinovich, Ohio
Senators: Judd Gregg, N.H.; Strom Thurmond, S.C.; Alfonse D'Amato, N.Y.; Thad Cochran, Miss.; Charles Grassley, Iowa; Don Nickles, Okla.; Conrad Burns, Mont.; Lauch Faircloth, N.C.
Governors: Fife Symington, Ariz.; George W. Bush, Texas
Senators: Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas; Robert Smith, N.H.; Paul Coverdell, Ga.; John McCain, Ariz.; Jim Inhofe, Okla.
Governor: Don Sundquist, Tenn.
Senators: Fred Thompson, Tenn.; Bill Frist, Tenn.
Sen. Rick Santorum, Penn.
Gov. William Weld, Mass.
*Source: campaign and Senate staffs