"How many of you would like to see Erica have an affair with Steve?" the moderator asked the 5,000 screaming, swooning soap opera fans. Erica, otherwise known as actress Susan Lucci of "All My Children," stood on the stage and smiled the sexy, manipulative smile her fans know so well. And the crowd screamed. Yes! Erica and Steve! Yes! Yes!

It was a sunny, muggy 95 degrees, the stars were late and the audience smaller than the USO had expected, but by the time the more than 60 soap opera actors had run through the crowd and up onto the stage, everyone on the Ellipse Saturday knew the USO-sponsored National Soap Opera Tribute would be a success. All the 13 current daytime shows were represented, as well as "The Doctors," which was canceled years ago. "Doctors," "nurses," "lawyers," "professional seductresses"--they were all there.

Serious fans arrived several hours early. They sweated and listened to the loudspeakers blare a recording of "The Human Touch," a new song by Rick Springfield, who appeared on ABC's "General Hospital" before he made good in the music industry.

Melody Thomas, who plays Nikki on CBS' "The Young and the Restless," introduced herself to the sweltering afternoon crowd with the comment, "It's so hot I'd like to take all my clothes off."

"I'm here to see Quint and Nola," Brian Condron said before the show started. "They're on 'The Guiding Light.' 'The Guiding Light' is the greatest show TV has ever produced."

Condron is from Massachusetts but is trying to get a job in Washington. "I bust my butt in the morning looking for work and get home in time for the soaps. I don't know what I'm going to do when I get a job," he said.

"You want to know how excited he was when Quint and Nola got married on the show?" Condron's friend Karen Shields asked. She fished into her bag and pulled out a framed cover of Soap Opera Digest with a picture of the couple. "A friend gave it to him. Oh, it's so queer. But does he have it on his dresser? Yes, he does." Condron smiled and nodded.

Saturday's tribute was the 500th such event--and the biggest--organized by Soap Opera Festivals, a company that has been shipping soap opera stars across the country to their waiting fans for seven years. The festivals consist of a lot of shrieks from the audience and a question-and-answer session during which viewers get to ask their favorite stars such questions as "Are you married?" and "Is Silver going to be coming back to get what she deserves?" A few stalwart fans have more philosophically troublesome queries, like the woman who said, "I've been watching the show since it first came on. I even remember when it was on radio. And all those years I thought Bill was dead. How did he come back?"

On the Ellipse, many of the questioners choked when the microphone was thrust in front of them, and were barely able to squeeze out a "Bo? I think you're cute." Whenever a male star--or "hunk," as Joyce Becker, Soap Opera Festivals' founder, called them--admitted to being married, Becker shot out, "Do you fool around?" The answer was usually a yes from the savvy star and a groan from the audience.

The more experienced stars knew enough to turn every question back to the fans: "Do you want me to save my wife from the car that's speeding toward a cliff?" But a few were a little more recalcitrant. When Becker asked the audience, "How many of you want the beard off? How many of you want the beard on?" the bearded actor in question muttered, "How many of you think I care?"

Jennifer Bella stood on the edge of the crowd, leaning on her bike and listening to the stars. "I've been watching 'All My Children,' 'Ryan's Hope,' 'One Life to Live' and 'The Guiding Light' since I was 12," the 24-year-old said. "You get to know the characters. They're so predictable, but they're still funny . . . And some of the women are really good role models. Even Erica, even though she's evil. They do things on their own, they live their own lives."

Stretched out on the grass behind the stage, Elaine Jacob of Potomac smoked a cigarette and stared across the Ellipse. "I'm here with a friend. I'm just waiting for him to finish so we can get back to work," she said. "He's here to see some dark-haired lady from 'All My Children.' " Jacob doesn't watch the soaps. "I don't need them. My life is a soap opera anyway."

Before they arrived on the Ellipse, the stars had visited troops in area military hospitals and installations and had gone through the White House. Saturday night, they were honored at a reception at the Sheraton Washington, where they gave out autographs and mingled with USO officials.

"I insisted on going to the bathroom in the White House, so I could say I had," said Melody Thomas at the reception. "I even took a picture."

One of the most popular "hunks" of the afternoon, Frank Runyeon of CBS' "As the World Turns," said he saw the soaps as a "training ground. You get the luxury of a new script every day and the chance to watch yourself every night to see how you're doing. And you get to play a character with strong emotions, perform real drama--granted in a kind of comic-strip way."

Mary Stuart has played Joanne Tourneur on NBC's "Search for Tomorow" for 32 years. "The part was written for me," she said at the reception. "I was a new bride and I wanted something I could do while I raised a family. In the 32 years, the soaps have changed as much as women have. See that blue apron up there?" Stuart pointed to a display of soap opera memorabilia about to be presented to the Smithsonian. "I wore that every day on the show from 1951 to 1957. Things have changed a lot, haven't they?"

Outside the reception, Mary Ellen Buckley was getting ready to leave. She and friends Dorothy Hall and Lisa Brennan had traveled from Boonton, N.J., to see the stars. The three women stayed at the Sheraton, caught some of the stars when they returned from the Ellipse and then staked out the entrance to the reception to collect autographs.

"I don't want to know all about their private life," Buckley said. "I just want to see them. We came down to this as a vacation, but I'm a nervous wreck. You look forward to seeing them so much, and then, when you do see them, you get all jerky, you can't say anything."