It takes a contemplative stroll along the boardwalk to put it into focus, past the casinos, the palm readers, the taffy parlors. On Sunday the hawkers who sold Miss America buttons are gradually stocking up once more on wax banana splits and cowboy hats the length of mid-size Buicks. Einstein might have found Atlantic City a distracting place to think, but the question here is not relativity. The question is why is Arkansas' Elizabeth Ward Miss America 1982?

All week the talk was Miss Texas, Sheri Ryman. In the press room she was electric. In statistician George Miller's computer she was the odds-on favorite, a 3-2 choice compared to Ward's 9-1. On Saturday afternoon when the NBC crew needed a rehearsal of the climatic runway walk, Miss Texas was the random choice. And at 10:59 p.m., when Ryman finished off a truly elastic gymnastic routine, the Convention Center erupted in the kind of applause that would do Nadia Comaneci proud. At that moment, it looked like roses and scepter time. Take it to the savings and loan; Miss Lone Star State is coming home.

So what happened? The chatter along the runway was that perhaps the judges felt Ward's rendition of "After You've Gone" -- though it was in no way the best act around -- might go over a little better at Jaycee clubs and supermarkets for the next year.

Besides, Ward had two things going for her.

Number one, she was among the brightest, most candid contestants, rarely indulging in that most time-honored and tiresome Miss American predilection: fence-sitting. Here's a sampler of comments taken from a private interview after she had captured the preliminary swimsuit competition:

On abortion: "It's a hard question, but I can't see anyone else telling me what to do with my body."

On feminism: "I'm not for the ERA amendment. I don't think you need the amendment, but I'm very much for equal rights for women."

On keeping fit: "Actually, I always have to try to gain weight. That's my biggest problem. Keeping it on. So I eat everything in sight. When I was training for this I ate fudgesicles and drank milkshakes every night before going to bed."

Which brings us to reason number two. The body. All week during rehearsals, when people commented on the pretty faces in the lot, they mentioned Ward as often as anybody. Yet when it came to the swimsuits, Ward was Baroness of the Beach, and in her rhinestone-trimmed, peach-colored evening gown, she was Belle of the Ball.

An hourglass to make the Steuben people proud.

The Hourglass Ideal. Germaine Greer mockingly describes its terrains in her book "The Female Eunich": the outsized breasts, the wrist-thin waist, the sloping hips. A little cellulite never hurt anybody when Rubens was painting pictures, but no longer. How the hourglass figure became the standard is unclear, but one look at Elizabeth Ward will tell you that curves are the tune in 1982.

Someone asked Ward if it embarrassed her to stride down the runway toward a television camera wearing nothing but high heels and a cranberry-colored bathing suit. "The swimsuit competition has never bothered me," said the 20-year-old accounting major. "I don't have any hang-ups about it. I don't worry about anything hanging out or my thighs being too big."

That was it. A prospective corporate lawyer who turns a few square feet of Lycra into a cultural ideal. Who else could she be but Miss America?

Time to think back.

Friday afternoon rehearsal. Terri Anthony, this year's Miss Easley, South Carolina, is here as an "observer." She will be a contestant in the 1982 state pageant and although her operatic ability is top-notch, she doesn't hesitate to point out her weakness: Her hourglass runs overtime in spots.

As she watches one of the preliminary swimsuit competitions, Anthony takes a fast glance at her own body. She smooths out the wrinkles on her jumpsuit with her palms. Miss Whatever is walking down the runway and Anthony is watching, dreaming, hoping a few pounds will gravitate to the right places or disappear altogether before next summer. She looks at herself again and says with a laugh, "Let's just say talent is my strong point so far."

If Anthony is a tough judge of her own figure, she is just as demanding with this year's contestants. She understands the Hourglass Principle. She has to. As the contestants walk under the relentless wattage, Anthony patiently comments on each one as though she were grading field projects for a course in animal husbandry.

Miss Rhode Island: "Heavy legs. See those upper thighs?"

Miss Texas: "Nice back. You see those muscles? See the difference? And look at her. You can see that personality."

Miss Hawaii: Anthony signals thumbs-down. "A stiff walker."

Miss Maryland: "Nice. Real nice. Definitely a nine."

Then Miss Wyoming, Miss Wisconsin, Miss California: A wave of "chubby thighs" and "nervous personalities."

After all the contestants have had their turn at the runway, they stand before the eight judges. Perfectly still. Knees, calves and ankles touching. The seconds are endless.

Who has what it takes? Do all the judges uphold the common sense of The Body? Is Wink Martindale out of his mind with all of those legs? Is Foster Brooks drunk with all that bare back?

Anthony looks at the lineup and whispers, "Perfect."

Who is it? "Miss Arkansas," she says. "Just look at her."

Next door to the Convention Center at the Playboy Casino the hourglasses are more plentiful, if not as precise. Playboy bunnies don't have to twirl a baton or walk a runway. All they have to do is serve drinks, deal blackjack, take the wisecracks and fend off the lechers. Nobody is offering them a $20,000 scholarship and a one-way ticket to Main Street.

The girls next door to the Girls Next Door are not walking through the songs of Perry Como or Pat Boone. At the Playboy Club it's Jungle Land. Weird scenes inside the gold mine. The bunnies, especially the ones living on the Jersey shore, might as well be out of a Bruce Springsteen song: a few hundred bucks a week, maybe a passing glance at a celebrity, a fiance out in Pleasantville, a decent used car. And eight hours a day packed into a rabbit suit.

Bunny Olga Muniz takes a break from serving drinks. With one hand on her hips, the other holding her tray, she stands under a portrait of Hugh Hefner, the absent Sheik of the Whole Shebang. "They want us to be decoration when we're not serving," says Muniz. "We're not allowed to sit down. They taught us the Bunny Perch. Also the Bunny Dip."

She demonstrates both. The Bunny Perch is a way of leaning on the back of a chair while "showing the legs to best advantage" and the Bunny Dip is a method of serving drinks with the bunny's rump about a cubit from the patron's nostrils. Muniz is a graduate of Rutgers University and speaks Spanish, French and Italian.

"I feel it's an honor to be a bunny," she says. "There were something like 6,000 applicants and only 500 or so got it.

"The Miss America contest? I guess I've always wanted to enter but I've been too lazy. Besides, I'm short. I'm only 5 feet 5. It's strange. People think of the Playboy bunny and they think of the centerfold. Sex symbols. Miss America is supposed to be a virgin, the girl next door. But I think if you took a contestant in Miss America and a Playboy bunny, they'd be pretty much the same. Girls who want to get ahead."

Let's put it in college boy terms: Roger Staubach is to Danny White as Bert Parks is to . . .

Ron Ely. The Great Replacement who is trying to fill the biggest tux in town. Ely is 6 feet 6. Physically he towers over his absent predecessor, but no one is about to forget Bert Parks. Parks is no where to be found in town, but as Ely stares out the window of his l9th floor suite in the Playboy Hotel on the afternoon before the pagent, you know he sees something ghostly on the horizon of the Atlantic.

The same cultural leaders who gave you the Hourglass Ideal would also say that Ely is the epitome of handsome, far more telegenic than the old vaudevillian he is thinking about. Still, off in the distance, there He is.

"I understand Bert still hasn't got quite over it," Ely says of last year's firing. "I imagine it must be hard to get used to doing a show for 25 years and then, all of a sudden, not to do it. But really, I don't know that much about Bert Parks. I don't really know anything about Bert Parks."

Ely stretches his legs. He says he is becoming "hot" property lately. Hot enough to turn down scripts in search of the right opportunities.

It has not always been this way. "When I did Tarzan, I was locked into a certain mold," he says. "I became known as an 'action actor.' "

A convenient comparison to Ely's career is offered: Bo Derek. They are both sex symbols and they both have co-starred with Cheetah. Ely is amused.

Although he says he is a friend of John Derek's, Ely has steered clear from the most recent incarnation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs story. "As long as I don't see the new Tarzan, I can't comment on it," he says. "I've never seen such unanimously bad reviews for a movie and I'm afraid my own comments wouldn't be complimentary. So I've stayed away."

As for being a male equivalent of Bo "Number 10" Derek, Ely looks puzzled. A Mendelian analysis might show a great deal of airline pilot, game show host and Mayflower immigrant in his blood, but if Ely is a sex god, he is a reluctant one. "I've never seen myself as others see me," he says. "I don't even see myself as tall until other people tell me."

The press corp has more than its share of part-timers, especially among the photographers. A few firemen and cops are popping flashbulbs this week for some of the smaller papers and magazines. The most famous part-timer here is Rita Jenrette, once the wife of a South Carolina congressman convicted in Abscam and the subject of a Playboy pictorial. Jenrette, dressed in pure tightness and a shawl, is covering the pageant for a news service, She is also garnering as much attention as any of the contestants.

There she is hugging Miss Texas. And, more often than not, there she is being stared at, getting interviewed. Almost like Norman Mailer covering a fight or a convention, but no one eyes him quite the same way.

"I was Miss Home Room in my high school, or something like that," she says in a red-carpeted pressroom. "I'll tell you though, it's better to conduct interviews than to give them. I've had a great time."

Jenrette says she will not be making a full time job of journalism.

An evening run-through of the opening production number. "Action":

We'll map the kind of future that we all want to face

But to get off to the drawing board

And flying into space

It takes action -- wo-ow action!

In his form-fitting tux, Ely strides on stage and when he twinkles those eyes into the footlights and hitches those massive shoulders, you've got to feel for Bert Parks watching the show in Greenwich, Conn., for this second desolate year.

After "Action," he starts in with the "Let's get a good first look at 'em" part of the show. Ely ticks off all the states, all the names, and the contestants take their first crack at the runway wearing autumn suits. Lots of skirt and jacket combinations. The profusion this year of Adolpho-esque red suits lets you know just who is watching the contest in Washington.

On the television monitors, most of the women look like, well, Miss Americas. Toothy, a touch vacant. But then you try smiling non-stop for hours on end. The cheeks cramp up and the jaw goes sore.Up close and in person everything is harsh and magnified. As they walk by, you begin to realize that television softens the contestants like a technological facial cream. The glowing red lips on television look, in person, as though they had kissed the left upper cut. The elaborately coiffed blond hair does not just glow, it reflects, more like Ben Hur's helmet than Rapunzel's locks.

As they stand before the judges they must remain motionless and smile. The personality must radiate. It's not their fault, but in that pose and for those eternal seconds you get the feeling some of them could get summer jobs as Boehm porcelains.

Later in rehearsal, Deanna Fogarty, Miss California 1979, is acting sexy. Sexy like a Murial cigar commercial. Lips pouty and pursed. Eyebrows arched and hips akimbo.

The Miss America Orchestra has cleared out half an hour ago and conductor Glenn Osser is penciling a few changes into his score. So what is Deanna Fogarty doing, and better yet, for whom?

She is rehearsing her lip-synced production number, that Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra chestnut, "The Lady is a Tramp," for Saturday night's warm-up show. It's mighty potent stuff for a pageant that has so far included Miss Montana performing a gymnastics routine to the tune of the Hawaii Five-O Theme and Miss Indiana pumping out an accordian rendition of "The Ritual Fire Dance."

The beat is picking up and the brass if flaring and Fogarty is projecting like wild all for the benefit of a half dozen production people seated up by the stage. All that radiance, all that stagy sex, and all those empty seats, more than 20,000. When Fogarty finishes the song, there is silence. Where does all the eros go?

More than 100 servicemen have come for a little entertainment to Friday night's preliminaries. Brian Shannon has been career Navy for the past 17 years, a machinist aboard the U.S.S. Lawrence.

Like some of the other servicemen, he's had a couple of drinks. Nevertheless, he is unfailingly even-handed and loyal. "All them women are beautiful," he says. "How could you pick one? How could you choose? I'm 35 goddamn years old and no 20-year-old student would go for me. But I'll tell you what, I love my wife and I wouldn't trade her for any one of them."

Here they come, more than 20 contestants walking down the runway in glittering evening gowns. Shannon makes a sweeping gesture with his arms toward the stage. His arms drop slowly to his side and he stares ahead. The bone structure of his face seems to turn to gum. Silver gowns and glowing flesh reflect off his glasses and he will not say another word.

We all have pageant fantasies. Here's one.

Instead of the usual two-hour streamlined version of the show, why not a l2-hour berserkathon, complete with meal breaks, a show in which every contestant sings and springs and smiles her way into your hearts.

If it had been that way this year, you wouldn't have missed Miss Michigan's tear-streaked dramatic reading ("Grandma, why did you have to die?") which had them roaring in the NBC truck, or Miss Colorado's acrobatic dance to the music of Exodus, an act which could well set back the Zionist movement l0 years.

Also, the acts are getting a little stuffy. Bizet, Puccini, Kabalevsky, Muscynsky and Verdi might have been pleased to know their competitions made the finals of the l982 Miss America Pageant, but does this spell the disappearance of the accordionists, the trampolinists, and the ventriloquists?

Maybe next year it will all change. Maybe next year Miss Somebody will shoot free throws to the tune of Sid Vicious' version of "My Way" while wearing a business suit.

Maybe not.