The scene is the lobby of the Watergate Hotel. It is 10 minutes before Lee Annenberg's swearing-in ceremony as chief of protocol at the State Department.

"Daaahling , how nice to see you," says Jerome Zipkin, bussing the cheek of a middle-aged woman seated on the soft leather couch.

"I just saw Punky upstairs," he says, "and I'm on my way to pick up Bets."

"Punky" is Jane Dart, diminutive wife of multimillionaire Californian Justin Dart and hostess for an exclusive luncheon at the Watergate following Annenberg's swearing in. "Bets" is Betsy Bloomingdale, fashion hall of famer and wife of Alfred Bloomingdale, founder of the Diners Club. Zipkin is a 66-year-old Manhattan millionaire and leader of Reagan's closest friends, known as "The Group."

"Where's Carol ?" Zipkin demands, his man-in-the-moon face tilted toward the ceiling.

"She's in the safety deposit box, getting her jewelry," says her mother, the middle-aged woman on the couch.

Carol is Carol Price, wife of Charles Price of Kansas City. She's a frozen potpie heiress. He's a candy-bar king and banker, soon to be the next ambassador to Belgium.

"Well, we're going to be late and I must pick up Bets," Zipkin says, gliding past the front desk.

Jerry Zipkin adores the Watergate. "It's so priiivate ," he drawls.

And of course, all his friends are here: Bets, Punky, Lee, and Nancy's only seven blocks away. "If I got an apartment in Washington," he says, "it would definitely be at the Watergate."

From the moment it sprang up on the banks of the Potomac in 1965, the concrete and glass monument to gracious living has made news, beginning with a resounding set of Bronx cheers from architectural critics.

Scene of the 1972 bugging of the Democratic headquarters, the Watergate became synonymous with the worst scandal in the history of the Republican Party. Now, the Watergate has become the unofficial headquarters for Republican partying. At times, say residents, there seem to be more Ridgewell's catering trucks than tour buses. More florists than tourists. The basement room that once housed the Democratic Club has been turned into a nouvelle cuisine restaurant where nouveau Washingtonians dine on consomme with truffles and where Ronald Reagan made his first foray to a public place as president.

"We want to change our image," says Peter Buse, vice president and general manager of the hotel. "We are no longer the Nixon Watergate."

The Reagan Watergate, Buse says, keeps confidential files on the preferences of their guests and has spent close to $1 million since January making sure the Republicans feel at home. In fact, before last November's election, the hotel complex had two budgets drawn up for 1981: the Carter budget and the Reagan budget.

"The Reagan budget was considerably higher," says Buse.

The new image, says Diane Sappenfield, assistant to the chairman of the board, is a return to the Kennedy era of elegance and chic. But it that was Camelot, this is The King & Us.

"They're our royalty ," says Sappenfield.

In fact, so many Reaganites have taken up residence at the Virginia Avenue complex that Sappenfield has dubbed it "the bedroom White House."

Any chance the Watergate will be annexed?

"I think we already are," Buse says.

The hotel, according to Buse, spends nearly $10,000 a month on VIP gifts: fresh raspberries flown in from Chile for Jerry Zipkin, chocolate truffles, orchid plants, champagne, copies of the Los Angeles Times on the doorsteps every morning, marzipan elephants on their pillows at night, his-and-her Christian Dior bathrobes with a large "W" embroidered on the brest pocket.

"It's very accommodating," says Walter Annenbery, TV Guide publisher and former ambassador to Great Britain. The Annenbergs moved into a three-bedroom suite on the 10th floor two months ago, which they share with a maid and a butler. The suite, which normally rents for $750 a day, was redecorated at the hotel's expense in Lee Annenberg's favorite colors: pale beige, pinks and pale green. They get a special rate on the suite. According to Sappenfield, the cost of the suite is several thousand dollars a week.

According to Buse, the Annenbergs "are out literally every night of all week"; the weekends are usually spent at their home in Philadelphia.

When the Charles Prices come to Washington, carrying a flotilla of Louis Vuitton luggage, they insist on renting the suite nest to the Annenbergs', Buse says. Jerry Zipkin, who flies into Washington five times a month, rents a two-bedroom suite nearby. ("He likes to have everybody on the same floor," Buse says.) The Justin Darts usually rent a one-bedroom suite for $260 a night.

Charles and Mary Jane Wick moved into Watergate South, one of three co-op apartment buildings, last November. He's a millionaire Hollywood investor, Reagan campaign fund-raiser, co-chairman of Reagan's inaugural and was recently appointed to head the International Communications Agency.

"We just love it," says Mary Jane Wick of their $1,800-a-month rented co-op. "There is nothing in Washington that has the amenities this place has. The shops, the beauty salon, the dentist, they're all here. And we all have homes in California, so you don't want the responsibility of that here."

Alfred and Betsy Bloomingdale moved in recently, renting an 11th-floor pied a terre in Watergate South where Nancy Reagan has popped in to visit a few times. "I love it," says Alfred Bloomingdale. " They treat us very well. And we can put people up at the hotel."

Besides, he says, "It's safe. You don't get mugged."

Bloomingdale says he and his wife "raved" about the Watergate to their friends, who naturally decided to move there too. "I don't think we're trying to be clubby," says Bloomingdale. "Just a bunch of us liked these apartments and we can put people up at the hotel." The couple, with homes in California and New York, travels to Washington frequently. "We come in to have some fun. We like to come in and say hello. Everybody else has a job here," he laughs. "I expect I'll get a couple of jobs."

William Wilson, millionaire southern California investor, real estate tycoon and a member of Reagan's "kitchen cabinet" who was recently appointed special envoy to the Vatican, shares an apartment with his wife Betty at Watergate South. Transporation Secretary Drew Lewis is ensconced in Watergate East, and newly elected Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.) just moved into Watergate West. Arthur Burns, recently appointed by Reagan to be ambassador to West Germany, has lived there for years, as have Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) and his wife Elizabeth Hanford Dole, a White House adviser. Other Republican Watergaters include Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), who likes to jog to work, and Reagan campaign fund-raiser June Walker.

And what do the neighbors think?

"They're the Gucci coochi cost too moochi group," says author Victor Lasky, a resident of the apartment complex for the last 11 years. "It's that Beverly Hills crowd, the Rodeo Drive crowd. It's a different world out there."

Lasky, who wrote speeches for Richard Nixon and Martha Mitchell before penning "It Didn't Start With Watergate," says The Group's influence is already being felt.

"I have noticed an increase in parties. The girls do wear fancy things now. They do look better."

The Laskys were recently invited to a party where the guests were told to wear clothes from the Roaring Twenties. "I don't know whether that's an indication of something," he says. "Maybe Calvin Coolidge is back."

Lasky says that members of The Group are "people the president can relax with, tell a dirty joke to, or a joke about the mafia without having it appear in print. They protect him. They're very close."

He sees nothing ironic in the fact that the Watergate -- a name Democrats love to drop -- has been taken over by Reaganites. "I don't think we Republicans," he says, "ever took it that seriously." Group Dynamics

Peter Buse (rhymes with juicy) is a tall, aristocratic-looking, 31 year-old native of Dusseldorf, Germany, and self-appointed chief of protocol for The Group. He is amusing, sophisticated and above all, accommodating .

"The word 'no' doesn't exist here," he says in his Oskar Werner accent.

The Group, he says, does have an uncanny knack for running into one another, as if their homing devices were permanently locked.

"The night before Prince Charles' dinner at the White House was interesting," he says. "Jerry Zipkin arrived through the front door. Mrs. Annenberg came through the lobby. The Prices got out of the elevator and the Wicks showed up behind them. It was as if they all knew somehow to meet there at that particular time."

Buse shakes his head. The Group, he says, tends to travel in a pack and "they like to throw parties to honor each other."

The Wicks for the Reagans, the Wicks for the Annenbergs, the Bloomingdales for the Wicks, the Prices for the Wicks, the Darts for the Annenbergs.

Buse handled the birthday party the Wicks threw for Ronald Reagan in February at the Watergate's Jean Louis restaurant.

"That was quite a coup for us," he says. In fact, Buse spent some time upstairs in the Annenberg's suite for cocktails with the Reagans. "President Reagan shook my hand, and said, 'You must be the youngest vice president in Washington,'" Buse laughs.

On the night of the birthday party there were two parties with reservations at the restaurant. The hotel moved one group to Le Pavillon restaurant and paid the entire bill for the dinner. The other guests, one of whom was the chairman of the board of a large corporation, dined in the Presidential Suite of the hotel.

The Group, he says, often eats at Jean Louis three times a week, where couples can easily spend $250 a night and up. According to chef Jean Louis Palladin, members of The Group are partial to veal, consomme with truffles and passion fruit sorbet for dessert. The Wicks often order fresh asparagus with vinaigrette and grilled filet mignon. Betsy Bloomingdale, he says, is especially fond of his almond cookies.

"They are very nice," says Palladin. "They like food."

He buys the fresh raspberries for Jerry Zipkin's suite. Recently, he paid $150 for twelve 10-ounce boxes. Which is a bargain, compared to the $240 he paid this winter when he had the berries flown in from Chile.

After Reagan's party, the president sent Palladin a box of Oregon blueberries. When Reagan was recuperating from his gunshot wound at George Washington University Hospital, Palladin offered to make the president carryout food from his kitchen. "But Mr. Wick said the hospital might be upset, that we think their food is no good," Palladin says.

What's more, the shaggy-haired chef continues, Nancy Reagan wants him to come to the White House to cook for the first family.

"They are very nice," Palladin says. "The night of the birthday party he thanked me for choosing the wine."

Although a White House press spokesman finds the following comment "highly unlikely," Palladin recalls that the president turned to him and said, "Thank God.French wines." Minding the Stores

Scene: Shopping complex below the Watergate. First stop: The Watergate Valet .

"I knew things were picking up," says manager Steve Levine, "when I noticed that the Wicks and the Annenbergs have their maids bring the clothes down. The Democrats didn't have maids."

But Levine also says that his new customers are not necessarily his best customers. "The more wealthy they are the cheaper the service they want," he says. "They'll get press only, instead of clean and press." Which saves them 50 cents. "I guess that's how people get rich," he shrugs.

Other shopkeepers in the Watergate complex say business is booming.

"It's a different kind of people," says Antonio Buttaro, owner of the Watergate Beauty Salon. "Before it was peanuts. Now it's different."

Many of the Californians, says Buttaro, like to get their hair done every day. They call his beauty shop "The Gossip Salon." George Ozturk, one of the stylists, says he goes to Lee Annenberg's suite almost every morning. "She likes to be perfect. She wants to look good all the time," says Ozturk. "Her husband is also perfect. He's a very perfect man."

Ozturk also coifs Mary Jane Wick, Jane Dart, Elizabeth Dole, Carol Price and Betsy Bloomingdale. "I like the California people," he smiles. "I don't feel like a hairdresser. I feel like a sculptor ."

The salon, where Martha Mitchell once held court, is also cluttered with Italian-made crocodile, lizard and snakeskin bags which the Californians can pick up for $300 to $2,000 apiece.

Betsy Bloomingdale frequents the Valentino shop, and is reportedly a big customer at Yves St. Laurent where women in The Group shop for dressy two-piece luncheon outfits fetching $1,000 and up.

"Their whole life style is so unlike anything in Washington," says Diane Sappenfield. "We look at them and our eyes bug out."

One member of The Group says David Narva, assistant manager of the Gucci shop came into the store recently and spent $3,000 in less than one hour. Another Californian came in recently "and without blinking an eye paid $400 for a lizard bag."

The Group's presence at The Watergate, Narva says, "has made a tremendous difference. They buy a lot of gift items, shoes. They come in and say, 'My God, I need a handbag THIS color.' Most of them are very good customers of Yves St. Laurent. They'll shop there and then come here for accessories. A scarf, a bag. They go for the extravagant, they go for the more exotic things. They need something, they come in and buy it." They pay, he says, with their gold American Express cards.

"It's a little clique," he says. "Everybody knows everybody else. I'm impressed by these people. It's a rejuvenation of the city. It's very encouraging. It's a rejuvenation of the grand life style. They are ultra ultra millionaires. That's exciting to think about."

Still, Narva says, they can be down to earth.

"I ran into Betsy Bloomingdale in the elevator today," Narva says. "She was carrying a Safeway shopping bag. I was so impressed." Flower Power

Scene: Watergate's Les Champs Restaurant the day before Jane Dart's luncheon for Lee Annenberg.

"Peter you wouldn't believe these two orchid plants I've got," says David Ellsworth, sipping a Beefeater in a brandy snifter with two onions.

Ellsworth is the 47-year-old ex-Californian who has become The Group's official florist. He owns a shop in Georgetown called Flowers and does most of the Watergate parties for the Californians.

"How much are they?" Buse asks.

"Six hundred dollars each," says Ellsworth.

Buse chokes on his vodka tonic.

"What about renting them for a day?" Buse asks.

"No. They're too heavy. It would be too much trouble," Ellsworth says.

Buse takes another sip of his drink. Ellsworth moves in for the kill.

"Of course, you know I did the Reagans' party for Prince Charles at the White House and they loved the orchid plants. They're the same color, pale green," Ellsworth says.

Buse nods. He's breaking down. The plants would be perfect for the luncheon.

"Actually," says Ellsworth, matter-of-factly, "I think The Four Seasons [hotel] might be interested in them."

Buse rolls his eyes.

"Okay," says Ellsworth. "I'll give 'em to you for $500 each." Ordinary People

Alfred Bloomingdale says the idea that he and his wife are royalty "is silly. We're not royalty. We ride the subway, we ride cabs." And one time, he says, his wife even rode in a delivery van.

According to her husband, Betsy Bloomingdale wanted to send flowers to another member of The Group. She called Ellsworth, who recommended that she come to the shop rather than order over the phone. But she was on her way to a luncheon at the Jockey Club. Ellsworth suggested she take a taxi over to his shop, and he would drive her to the luncheon. In his van. So Bloomingdale went to the shop, picked out the flowers and rode in the delivery van to the Jockey Club. By all accounts, Betsy Bloomingdale enjoyed riding in the van because she could see over the tops of other cars. She pointed out all the Washington houses where she had been to parties. When they arrived at the Jockey Club, Ellsworth refused to drop Bloomingdale at the door, pulling to the curb instead.

"But David, why not?" Betsy Bloomingdale asked the florist. "It's so chic." Six Rms, Riv Vu

The Watergate complex, built from 1965 to 1971, was conceived, according to a press release, "as a series of curvilinear structures, supported by free-standing columns that are intended to give the pedestrian an illusion of buildings which float above a suburban setting of lawns, landscaped terraces, reflecting pools and fountains."

The development includes the hotel, two office buildings, three co-op apartment buildings (with room-service privileges), four swimming pools, seven restaurants, health club, an international shopping boutique and outside mall. It is adjacent to the Kennedy Center, three blocks from the State Department, five blocks from Georgetown and seven blocks from the White House.

Since 1977, it has been owned by the Continental Illinois Properties and Nicolas M. Salgo, Associates. The development, which has recently assumed the aura of a principality, has its own 30-man, 24-hour security force.

Apartments sell for whatever the buyer is willing to pay. Which is, several residents say, double the amount they sold for a year ago.

"One two-bedroom recently sold for $750,000," says Diane Sappenfield. "And it wasn't really that nice."

A river view is preferable to a city view, balconies are in demand, especially if there is no overhang (meaning the apartment above you has no balcony).

Each building has its own rules and regulations. For example, says one resident, you can only own a pet if you own the apartment. If you own two adjoining units, you are allowed two pets. Several years ago, in an effort to dissuade the rising pet population, a rule was enacted that said if your pet died, you were not allowed to replace it.

The south building is currently the "in" building. "They recently redecorated the lobby area of South," says one resident who asked not to be named. "I can't help thinking it coincided with the arrival of the Republicans."

However, many Democrats also live at the complex: former Democratic party chairman Robert Strauss, Sen. Russell Long (D-La.), former senator Richard Stone, along with a gaggle of other VIPs, including Jacqueline Onassis' mother, Mrs. Bingham Morris, and socialite Anna Chennault. Ex-Watergaters include former attorney general Griffin Bell, Secretary of State Alexander Haig, former senator Abe Ribicoff, John and Martha Mitchell, consumer adviser Virginia Knauer, former senator Stuart Symington and CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl.

Former senator Jacob Javits is currently trying to sell his two-bedroom penthouse apartment. According to several sources, the Annenbergs looked at the penthouse. One of the reasons they didn't buy it was the city view.

"I like it because it has a view of the city," says Marion Javits. "Not that murky water." Lunch Hour

Scene: The Watergate Beauty Salon the morning of the Annenberg luncheon.

"I told him not to give me that ladies-luncheon look," says Jane Dart, looking up at George who is smoothing her streaked, short pageboy.

The Gossip Salon is clearing out. A woman is on the phone to her husband. "Honey, I forgot my earrings. And will you bring that wiggily ring?"

Then Dart sprints over to the Watergate Terrace to inspect the dining room. Round tables are set up with pink tablecloths. She reviews the menu: jellied consomme, crabmeat au gratin, salad, Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc. The flowers haven't arrived yet. They must be white, because Lee Annenberg likes white flowers.

"I told them, no faux pas today," says Buse, surveying the waiters milling about. They have changed the tables twice, the china three times. They are still putting down and picking up the wineglasses.

Nancy Reagan is supposed to come to the luncheon. Secret Servicemen stand in the dining room and the hotel lobby, little earphones in their ears.

"Where's David?" Buse says, watching the workmen remove the garish yellow drapes from the windows. Buse is also upset about the chartreuse foil that somebody has put on the potted palms to disguise the plastic containers.

Buse says Lee Annenberg has chosen this day for her swearing-in ceremony because Hollywood producer and Reagan supporter Jack Wrather and his wife Bonita Granville Wrather have flown in 75 of the Californians for a film premiere and a Western-style party that night at the Kennedy Center. Everyone is in town.

David Ellsworth arrives with huge centerpieces on each arm: white roses, baby's breath, posies, freesia (the "in" flower with the Californians).

"It's really fun to work with people of taste," Ellsworth says.

He is chain-smoking thin brown More cigarettes and trying to explain to Buse how the van broke down and well, those huge orchid plants he had finally convinced Buse to use were in the back of the van.

"Maybe we could get the Watergate Pastry Shop van to go over?" Buse says.

It's too late. Jane Dart comes back from the swearing-in ceremony. The guests will be arriving any minute. She is told that Nancy Reagan is not coming, after all. Dart huddles with David Ellsworth in the corner. She is telling the florist which centerpieces are to be delivered to which member of The Group after the luncheon: The freesia goes to Nancy Reagan, the roses to Betsy Bloomingdale, the posies to . . .

"Daaarling," says Zipkin to a woman in red. The guests are arriving in limo after limo: the Deutches, the Jorgensens, the Wilsons, the Prices, actress Martha Hyer and husband Hal Wallis, Chief Justice Warren Burger, Attorney General William French Smith, the Michael Deavers, White House social secretary Muffie Brandon.

"Betsy isn't coming," Alfred Bloomingdale says. "She had a more pressing engagement."

"But what could be more pressing than this?" asks Charles Price.

Bloomingdale winks. His wife is obviously lunching with Nancy Reagan at the White House.

The Annenbergs' limo pulls up to the entrance. Walter Annenberg steps out, trips over the concrete step, then rights himself. Peter Buse is there. They shake hands.

"Thank you," the former ambassador tells Buse, "for treating us in the manner to which we're accustomed."