Are some of the nation's major political cartoonists going soft on Ronald Reagan? Not on his policies, of course, and certainly not on his appointees. But on the man?

"Well," says Wunderkind Jack Ohman, the 21-year-old cartoonist for The Columbus Dispatch and some 350 other papers, "he did sort of lose his wrinkles there after the shooting . . . Actually, I strengthened his chin there for a while . . . but I got over it."

"Well," says the usually irrepressible Mike Peters of the Dayton Daily News (who, for example, turned Prince Charles into a frog on his wedding day in Peters' animated segment on the "Today" show), "there is a general perception of Reagan as a nice guy . . ."

"Well," says Tony Auth of The Philadelphia Inquirer, who named the presidential yacht the "Truly Needy," "How can you not like him? How do you draw somebody you really like?"

"They've got to be kidding," moans Paul Conrad, the editorial cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times, who didn't have much use for Ronald Reagan as governor of California and doesn't have much use for Ronald Reagan as president of the United States. "In fact these guys are kidding themselves if they think they can get by without drawing the president . . . I do think it's necessary to do cartoons on these various officials, but never lose sight of the fact that they're doing precisely what Reagan wants."

A recent Conrad:

A Reagan with a distinct JFK look to him is sitting in a rocking chair and saying, "Ask not what business can do for you. Rather ask what you can do for business."

Mike Peters still does an occasional wacky-looking Reagan, but this is the cartoonist who, six months ago, was crowing that "I'll have Reagan to kick around . . ." and who gleefully proclaimed that "I go for the cheap shots."

Now Peters says this:

"You know the general perception of Reagan is more and more that he's a nice guy, and to come out and to view him like really a mean guy doesn't necessarily ring true.

"You can draw him being rather callous, as far as the plight of poverty-stricken Americans, but not just straight mean."

Traditionally, the editorial cartoonist is something more than a mirror of public opinion. He is almost a predictor of the public whim.

Much as Johnny Carson's monologue tells "Tonight" addicts who and what to snicker at, the editorial cartoonist is the forecaster of the opinion poll. How's the president doing? Check tomorrow's poll, but check today's cartoon first . . .

Somehow, though, in this administration, the edge is off.

A pollster asks the man at the door, "What do you think of Reagan's policies?" The man answers: "!!* !!." The pollster says, "Well, then, you must have some strong feelings about Reagan personally."

The man answers: "You betcha . . . he's charismatic, affable, grandfatherly, pure, gentlemanly, articulate, persuasive, handsome, loyal, truthful . . ." -- Dwane Powell, the Raleigh News & Observer

"I don't know why it is," says Powell, "but I think Reagan is not quite the personal ogre we thought. I disagree with his programs a lot, but a lot of people out there, I've discovered, like him even if they disagree with the policies. And if I do a mean, nasty, vicious cartoon, it has a tendency to backfire."

Doug Marlette, of The Charlotte Observer, recognizes that he is now one of the few "on the attack," as he puts it.

"I've always liked Hannah Arendt's expression of the banality of evil," says Marlette. "Attila the Hun was probably nice to his family."

The Washington Post's Herbert Block says he doesn't show Reagan as "mean or evil, but with his arm around some bad policy. He's a smiling, affable guy with terrible policies and terrible appointees . . . I don't make him prune-faced. He looks okay. But along with that smile are all these bad things."

Both Marlette and Herblock meticulously tie Reagan to his administration's actions.

A recent Marlette:

Under the heading "Reagan appointees" there is: Secretary of Sheep, with a picture of a wolf; Secretary of Chickens, with a picture of a fox; Secretary of Mice, with a cat pictured, and Human Rights, with a man labeled "Lefever."

A more recent Herblock:

In a control tower atop the White House (which is labeled "Reagan Appointees") sit three figures holding these picket signs: "Clean air standards UNFAIR to auto industry" and "STRIKE against 'environmental extremists' " and "SLOW DOWN on air cleanups." Walking in front of the White House are Mr. and Mrs. Citizen gasping in the smoggy atmosphere with junior alongside in a gas mask.

And another Marlette:

Reagan addressing the country: "My fellow wealthy Americans . . ."

Although it was Mike Peters who initially saw Nancy Reagan as "the Billy Carter of the Reagan administration" it is Jack Ohman -- who is advertised as a conservative -- who lets his impatience with the first lady's imperiousness creep into his cartoons. As in:

Prince Charles, carrying the Steuben glass bowl, the gift from the Reagans, stumbles over the furniture. Princess Diana says, "Oh, do be careful . . . Mrs. Reagan bought that with her own subjects' money . . ."

Tony Auth is careful. "It's possible," he says, "that I would do a cartoon involving Nancy. But she would have to be more substantive. People would think it was a cheap shot, and you've got to be careful about losing your audience."

And Peters: "She seems to have gone underground . . . somebody is doing their job."

Reagan, says Ohman, is not artistically easy to caricature. "It took me a year to get his hair right," he says, and although he concedes his Reagan is looking something like a middle linebacker "you really don't want to be too flattering." Ohman, who recently moved from the (University of) Minnesota Daily to The Columbus Dispatch, will take some courses at Ohio State, but finishing college is taking second place to his cartooning. When Jeff MacNelly gave up political drawing in favor of his strip "Shoe," Ohman slipped into many of the papers that had used MacNelly. (A native of Springfield, Va., Ohman has "a kid brother" who is editorial cartoonist for the West Springfield High School paper.)

Along with the reluctance to take on the Reagan image, of course, is the presence of subjects virtually irresistible to the wicked pen pals. Like Interior Secretary James Watt.

Treatments of him range from Conrad's portrayal of Watt with a Smokey-the-bearskin rug before his hearth and Marlette's mounted Bambi head on Watt's wall to Peters' new verse to the Woody Guthrie classic.

"What a lot of us have been doing," concedes Mike Peters, "is we've been taking our anger out on the Reagan appointees -- Watt, Lefever, Haig -- and of course this all might be part of the Reagan game plan -- having all the lightning rods around, while he's the nice guy, the fatherly type, the movie star, the communicator. So you can't just go out and say that Ronald Reagan is a bloodthirsty vampire . . ."

Says Dwane Powell, "It's easy to direct at Watt. And it's easy to forget it's really Reagan. I don't think the message really sinks in. Maybe our job is to try to tie him in more closely."

The Paul Conrad-Reagan relationship -- blood feud some may call it -- goes back a long way. The publisher of the Los Angeles Times used to get an almost daily phone call, first from then-Gov. Reagan and later, when the publisher refused to accept his calls, from Nancy, complaining about Paul Conrad's cartoons.

Conrad is appalled at the apparent tendency to play the Reagan game. "It's a cop-out," he says. "If I did that, I'd quit."

And Doug Marlette, who is back to his drawing board after a year as a Nieman Fellow, says he noticed while he was at Harvard that the cartoons were getting to be "like a hit of cocaine. It makes you laugh, but it has no substance, no depth, no passion, no conviction -- and that disturbs me.

"You have to sort of educate people into what's really going on. These people the Reagan administration are really mean-spirited . . . they may be nice to their families and pay their mortgages on time and they contribute to the United Way, but their problem is a serious hardness of heart. It comes out in the policies. And Reagan is a perfect front man for them."