The women are pawns in a game of chess. They are moved from place to place, told what to say, how to look, who to like, when to wave, who to trust. They are political wives. And as brainy as they might be, it is not very often that they are allowed to set the strategy or even ask "why."

What was at stake in Campaign '80 was, of course, the highest office in the land. Among the players on the board was one doe-eyed woman with petaled, auburn hair and a penetrating gaze who would flash in contempt at being called a pawn. In fact, in her perfect Adolfo suits and her glorious Galanos gowns, this political wife looks more like a princess, positioned next to her adoring white knight.

Except for this: Nancy Reagan wants to be queen.

"She is the perfect political wife," insists California's Lt. Gov. Mike Curb. "And she'll make an excellent first lady because she wants so much to be there, there's no question about that. She plays a major role in most of his decision-making. He seeks her counsel. She's a woman who says what she believes. They're just a great couple."

Will she exercise the same sort of power as say, Rosalynn Carter?

Curb hesitates for a moment and says, "Yes, yes. There's no question she will."

Nancy Reagan gets exceedingly upset when anyone talks about her power -- her power over her husband, her power behind the throne. It's almost as if she draws herself up like a wounded kitten when you ask her "The Question." First comes that little girlish, but throaty laugh. Then the steely look that fogs her eyes as she searches for The Safe Answer to the dreadful query that continues to haunt her.

Being interviewed before the election in the Reagans' American-Oriental, Pacific Palisades home, she sits on a flowered sofa, silently composing the proper way to explain her role in her husband's hard-fought campaign. Finally she speaks.

"There's, uh, no doubt that there is much more curiosity about wives today than yesterday. When Ronnie first ran [for governor] in '66, there wasn't the same curiosity. There was an interest, but maybe more because of the motion-picture background. My role?" (The nervous laugh erupts again.) "Well, I try to be supportive of my husband. I just do whatever they tell me to do."

But the rumors regaling Mrs. Reagan's behind-the-scenes clout persist. At the Republican convention this summer, a Reagan aide explained, "She's a very strong woman who offers the same sort of counsel as Mrs. Carter. The Reagans are confidants, they keep everything very close to the vest." Rep. Barry Goldwater Jr. added, "Women control politics. They're always in the background, but I've never known a situation where they weren't pulling the strings."

The very thought sends Mrs. Reagan reeling. No, no, no, she says, she does not join in decision-making. And she can get testy if you compare her to Rosalynn Carter.

"That doesn't mean that we don't talk politics all the time, because we do," she demurs. "And, um, it doesn't mean that we don't influence each other. After all, if you've been married 28 years, you have got to influence each other. But as far as real, hard decisions go . . ."

Her voice trails off and she shakes her head. The axing of campaign chief John Sears, widely attributed to Nancy Reagan after word spread of her displeasure with him, she insists, is "simply not true, not true. You know, if you've been around politics any length of time, you soon discover that political rumors -- well, you can hear just about anything you want to hear." And she says all that stuff about how she has just as much muscle as Rosalynn Carter is way off base.

"All first ladies are different," she explains in sing-song, as if she's gone through this a hundred times before. "You couldn't ask for two more adverse people than Eleanor Roosevelt and Bess Truman. But I'm sure Eleanor did what was best for Franklin and Bess did what was best for Harry. So, well, I would do what was best for me and Ronnie. My way certainly would not be Rosalynn Carter's way. No, I would not be sitting on a power base. No, no way."

It is a strident, almost frantic denial, as if the mere thought of a woman holding any power conjures up nightmares of the way the world shouldn't be. Nancy Reagan prides herself on being a good wife and unabashedly glories in the fact that she lives her entire existence through her husband. She can talk all day about family, marriage, husbands, home and seems honestly threatened by anyone brazen enough to bring her Norman Rockwellian picture of life into glaring focus. A 'Blessed Couple'

She is a strong woman who concedes that her strength comes from her husband -- hers is the pre-liberation definition of strength. She joins him in intoning against such contemporary notions as abortion, premarital sex and the ERA, while raising a torch to ultraconservative belief in the family unit and the death penalty. She is highly moral, almost puritanical, a self-annointed political evangelist preaching virtue as if virginity were the key to the nation's ills.

In a nostalgic sense, the Reagans are magical. They are totally devoted to each other and are locked in a perpetual state of torrid post-middle-age love.

"They really are best friends," stepdaughter Maureen Reagan claims. "But she is not whispering in his ear and pushing him from behind."

While growing up in Chicago and attending the exclusive Girl's Latin School, Mrs. Reagan met Deedie Wrigley Chauncey, and has remained a close friend. "Her father [Dr. Loyal Davis] was a very stabilizing influence on her life. She had a good upbringing with the old-fashioned, head-of-the-family situation. It was the era of the patriarchal society," recalls Chauncey. "Now she defers to Ronnie like she did to her dad.

"They are one of the most blessed couples -- and I mean that spiritually," she continues. "They're both reserved. She's not shy or retiring, but self-contained. She's a lady every inch of the way. And I think she's unconsciously been training for [first lady] all her life."

It is with obvious pain and discomfort that Mrs. Reagan remembers her childhood years, a time fraught with loneliness and separation that probably explains her idolatry of the kind of family unit straight out of "Ozzie and Harriet." Not only does she refuse in her autobiography, "Nancy," to mention the name of Jane Wyman, Reagan's first wife with whom he had a daughter, Maureen, and an adopted son, Mike. Not only does she gloss over the fact that her stepfather was also divorced, and that Maureen was divorced twice and that her mother was divorced, but her early childhood recollections are recounted in just a few, tormenting pages -- as if dwelling on them rattles her comforting idealization of life. Life With Fathers

She was born on July 6, 1923, in a Manhattan hospital. Her mother was the spirited actress Edith Luckett, her father Kenneth Robbins, a New Jersey car salesman. Her parents immediately separated after baby Nancy arrived; her father (now deceased) never bothered to drop by the hospital.

Her godmother was the famous Alla Nazimova. As a child she glimpsed the coterie of her mother's famous friends -- Zazu Pitts, Josh Logan, Jimmy Stewart, Coleen Moore, "Uncle" Walter and Nan Huston, Louise and Spencer Tracy.

Her mother couldn't justify raising Nancy out of a stage trunk, and at age 2, she was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Bethesda, Md. "It was a terrible wrench for both of us," recalls Mrs. Reagan. "Whenever Mother landed in New York for any length of time, my aunt would take me there by train to live with her. She used to live in residential hotels or in brownstone apartments. To this day, I can't pass this type of building without getting a terrible sinking feeling in my stomach."

Nancy's last visits with her natural father left comparable scars. During her stay, Robbins said something unflattering about his ex-wife that Nancy didn't like and when the child got angry, Robbins locked her in the bathroom. "I was terrified," Nancy recalls. "The incident brings back a flood of memories I would rather forget."

To this day, Mrs. Reagan feels trapped behind locked doors.

When Nancy was almost 7, her mother arrived one day in Bethesda to tell her daughter she'd fallen in love with a doctor named Loyal Davis, and that if Nancy agreed, Edith would give up the stage and they would all live together, happily ever after, in Chicago. There were rough, jealous times at first -- a daughter forced to share the mother she had passionately missed. But soon Nancy relented, and at age 14, became Davis' adopted daughter.

It was a good life, living on chic Lake Shore Drive, attending Girl's Latin School, being sent off to Smith College to major in drama. While at Smith, Nancy and her fiance, Frank Birney, planned to meet in New York one weekend. But he was late for the train at Princeton Junction, jumped the gate and ran onto the tracks. The engineer saw him, but not in time. Birney was instantly killed. Nancy was waiting for him in the city when the telephone call came.

Her senior year at Smith, coed Davis suffered the breakup of another engagement. "At Smith I learned that life is not always easy, and romances do not always have romantic endings. I went through difficult changes and emotional experiences, and I learned that you have to take life as it comes, and be prepared for sudden twists of fate. But I have always been a romantic. I almost feel I was fated to meet Ronnie." The Twilight of a Golden Era

In the summer of 1949, on the strength of a screen test arranged by family friend Spencer Tracy and directed by George Cukor, Nancy Davis landed a seven-year contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, joining a vast stable of actors and actresses who had arrived just in time to witness the agonizing demise of the omnipotent studios and the rigid star system.

The Golden Era was almost gone. But for newcomer Nancy Davis, the summer of '49 marked "the end of one period of life and the beginning of another."

One of her first duties upon arrival at the bustling Culver City studio was to complete a detailed biographical information form for the MGM files. Typing was not her strong suit. Errors filled the pages, and rarely did her words hug the dotted lines. However, this form remains the sole personal document to be found in the actress' file at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences library.

She listed her favorite actors ("Spencer Tracy and Walter Huston"), said her childhood ambition was "to be an actress," but that her greatest ambition was "to have a successful happy marriage." Davis' opinion of Hollywood? "Haven't been here long enough to have one." Davis' favorite role? "Haven't had one yet. Ask me in a couple of years." What would Davis do if not in pictures? "Lord knows!"

By far the most intriguing were her cryptic responses to the more personal probes.

Any particular phobia? "Superficiality, vulgarity, especially in women, untidiness of mind and person, and cigars!"

Davis left several questions unanswered. Blank is the section for detailing "your favorite childhood memory." But there was one point she chose to make perfectly clear. The question read: Do you govern your life by any rule or rules? "Yes," she answered firmly, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I believe strongly in the law of retribution -- you get back what you give."

"Nancy really looks very unlike the usual conception of an actress," Louella Parsons, Hollywood's premier gossipist reported only months after Davis' arrival on the West Coast. "She might be the daughter of any town's leading citizen, or the competent secretary of a big official, but you would never label her an actress. 'Any one man in your life?' I asked her. I'd heard that Bob Walker was very smitten with her. 'Not yet,' Nancy said. 'I won't be trite and say I am married to my career, but that's pretty much the truth.'"

Davis' union to her occupation, needless to say, was a brief one. She appeared in only 11 films between 1949 and 1956, none of which came close to being the hits of their day.

For all her designs on an acting career, marriage and a family persisted as her passion and priority. "I never was really a career girl. I majored in drama at Smith and I became an actress because I didn't want to go back to Chicago and lead the life of a post-debutante," Mrs. Reagan would insist, 20 years later. "I wanted to do something until I found the man I wanted to marry. It was never a great consuming passion on my part. I'm much happier now than I ever was then." Up Against the Legends

At the time, competition in Hollywood was fierce. And at MGM, Nancy Davis found herself in the company of such established legends as Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Elizabeth Taylor. Chief casting director at the studio, Benny Thau, says, "I always recommended Nancy for parts. She was sweet and appealing -- one of the most popular girls on the lot." And Swifty Lazar, an agent who at the time represented MGM abroad, goes even further. "If Nancy had not married Ronnie, she would have been a big movie star. She was an extremely intelligent woman with a direction -- definitely a cut above the starlets."

Other ingenues were known to drink too much, pop too many pills, succumb to too many casting couches, and trip too often into too many swimming pools at too many wild and glamorous soirees. That was not Nancy Davis' Hollywood.

There were a few dates with a few leading men, Clark Gable and Cary Grant among them. "I had the joy of taking her to a couple of places many a year ago," tells Grant, "and found her to be a delightfully well-bred young lady. She was not at all the flashy actress. I never got the impression she was a big partygoer. What I do remember about Nancy was some very bright conversations."

Through her mother's friendship with actress Colleen Moore, Davis won an introduction to actor Robert Stack and his wife Rosemarie. "She came to dinner at our house one evening," says Stack. "She was an actress, so she was far from being a square. We found her mannered, always in control, with a great sense of humor about herself. In this business, if you give yourself away too easily, you destroy yourself. She seemed to know that. She was a realist." The Biggest Part

To this day, Nancy Reagan maintains that she whispers a little prayer every night for director Mervyn LeRoy. For in 1951, it was LeRoy who introduced Nancy to Ron. It was a meeting that would carry Davis into the limelight far more than her career ever did. Nancy Davis' marriage to Ronald Reagan, at last, provided her with a billing that not even Taylor or Turner could touch. (At the GOP convention, it was Liz who scampered to the Reagan box to have an audience with Nancy.)

"Nancy finally got the biggest part of them all," says a Hollywood associate. "She's finally the brightest star. And it doesn't surprise me at all. I always knew she'd show Hollywood."

After almost a year of courting, on March 4, 1952, in a simple, private ceremony at the Little Brown Church in the San Fernando Valley, Nancy and Ronnie were married. Actor William Holden and his wife Ardis served as witnesses.

The reagans spent their wedding night in the famous Mission Inn in Riverside. But for the remainder of their honeymoon, the newlyweds holed up in Phoenix's Arizona Biltmore, the very hotel in which Nancy's parents were vacationing. "Having a honeymoon with your parents may seem strange to some people, but somehow it seemed perfectly natural to us," says Mrs. Reagan. "Perhaps it is a tribute to Ronnie that he took this in stride."

The end of the honeymoon did not signal the last of Dr. and Mrs. Loyal Davis' influence on the Reagan relationship. Ronald Reagan may have thought he'd married a seemingly non-political woman, but in the deal, he got one passionate demagogue of a father-in-law.

"Meeting her father, the doctor, wasn't the easiest moment I ever had," Reagan once remembered. "After all, here was a man internationally renowned in the world of surgery, a fearless stickler for principle, and a man who could no more choose the east path of expediency than he could rob the poorbox."

A local doctor who studied under Loyal Davis recalls him as "one of the meanest, toughest, commie-hating, narrow-minded, John Birching, ultra-conservative hellions" he'd ever met. Which explains why medical students, after delivering babies in Chicago's black ghettos, would get back at Davis by convincing mothers to name their babies after him. "But he's also," adds a former student, "one of the most gifted and brightest men I've ever known."

Nancy Davis Reagan would prove to be her adoptive father's daughter.

Loyal Davis, his wife, Edie, and his daughter, Nancy, were now Ronald Reagan's family, his nucleus. It would vastly change his life and theirs. And especially Nancy's, for here is where she says her life began.