DALTON, GA., FEB. 18 -- Just what is it about this north Georgia hamlet of 25,000 that makes it such a hot breeding ground for blonde ambition?

Just what is it about these rolling foothills in the Blue Ridge Mountains that spawns such bewitching femmes fatales as Deborah Norville, who bumped the beloved Jane Pauley off the "Today" show, and Marla Maples, the Georgia peach blamed for busting up the 13-year marriage of Donald and Ivana Trump?

Dalton, Ga., is their hometown, a cosmopolitan spot that claims to be the carpet capital of the world. It features some 200 textile mills producing two-thirds of the nation's yardage, so many good old boys gone from rugs to riches that it ranks way up there in millionaires per capita, shiny red Ferraris in high school parking lots -- and enough marriages gone bust that Johnny Carson declared it the divorce capital of America.

A search for the root of it all begins at the Whitfield County Courthouse, where a clerk says she recently found three times as many splits as marriages when researching records at a preacher's request. A number were carpet moguls shedding wives for sweeter, younger things. One quiet divorce settlement is said to have been around $30 million. That's $5 million more than Ivana purportedly bargained for in a prenuptial pact with her Two-Billion-Dollar Man.

"We're the Peyton Place of the South," says Wayne Metcalf, 45, owner of the popular downtown Oakwood Cafe, a touch of pride in his tone. He's on No. 2 himself.

Then it's on to Sensations, the lounge at the Holiday Inn. It's about midnight and the place is packed with young Daltonettes (many of them blond) hunting carpet executives. A rock band, TNT, blasts out "You Can't Always Get What You Want," which is apparent to Terry "Taco" Anderson, 39, a millworker in faded jeans.

He's been coming here with the guys to chase skirts every Thursday night for 11 years, he says, though he is frustrated that most of the young women he spies are only out to "chase suits." He means carpet tycoon types. Donald Trump wannabees.

"Even if they're old and fat," he says. "It bothers me sometimes, but it's a different generation out there. When I was growing up, women had a few values. Dalton has more pretty women than anywhere around, but they're gold diggers."

He certainly doesn't mean Norville, widely admired here for making it on her own, from youngest Atlanta TV anchor at 21 to the "Today" helm at 31. Or even Maples, a local beauty queen who dropped out of the University of Georgia to pursue modeling work in Atlanta, then acting assignments in New York -- scoring a Delta billboard (in a bikini), an episode of "Dallas" and a small role in the movie "Maximum Overdrive," in which she was killed off quickly.

"I saw her when she won Miss Resaca Beach," says Anderson, referring to a local carpet industry beauty contest. "Very sexy." Her poster, in a swimsuit, hangs on his wall. "I don't blame her now. If I had a chance to date a billionaire, I'd do it."

Later, farther down Walnut Avenue at Walnut Center Mall, past the Budget Inn, Discount Carpet, Race Trac Gas, K mart and Shoneys, the material girls are out in full force. And they're cheering too -- for Marla even more than Deborah. Maples, 26, seems to be their Cinderella-Scarlett dream girl for the '90s, courted by a Rhett Butler billionaire. Not just any beautiful blonde can land a network anchor job. But almost any blonde has a shot at Marladom.

"You might feel bad for a little while if he has to leave his wife, but I'm sure you'd get over it," says a dreamy-eyed Shelly Majors, 18, a platinum blonde with braces, in her last year at Maples's alma mater, North Whitfield High.

"It's weird for someone in your hometown to be chased by a billionaire," she sighs. "Be nice if a billionaire was chasing after me."

"It's awesome," nodded pal Kelly Smith, 18, a (brunet) cheerleader. "All the girls are excited about it. Just think about it -- a girl from Dalton {and} a billionaire. I know Debbie worked her way up. She didn't meet a billionaire. But either way, they're both awesome."

"Does Donald Trump have a son?" wondered Holly Steele, 17, a (blond) senior at Dalton High who works nights at a clothing store. Her father is a missionary. "My sister says there are a lot of rich, eligible men in Dalton, that she aimed to get one -- and she did. He owns a carpet mill."

A few shops down the mall, polo-shirted Andy Babb, 19, a gold Rolex on his wrist, Porsche 944 keys jangling in his pocket, pines for a girl to love him, not his wheels. "Sometimes, I drive my '74 Bronco to school so they'll like me for me," he says. But rich girls have hurt him too.

He'll never forget one: "She was a Southern-belle type. Her Daddy owned half the town of Calhoun. But she went for some guy on the other side of the tracks. To be a rebel I guess. Broke my heart. Haven't dated much since her."

"If Mr. T. thinks Ivana went through a checkbook like grease through a goose," Atlanta syndicated columnist Lewis Grizzard, who married and divorced three Georgia peaches, counseled yesterday, "wait until he deals with his cute little peachette. If she's like other GPs I have known, she can go out in the morning with a credit card and come home at night with the writing worn slap off."

Marla-Donald rumors have been circulating hereabouts for at least a year. Asked to confirm reports that Trump had dispatched a jet to whisk Marla's stunning blond mama, Ann Ogletree, off for her 50th birthday (some say to New York, others to Atlantic City) the other day, Marla's grandmother says, "No comment."

"I'm proud of the ladies of Dalton," laughs Linda Vaughn, a hometown blonde catapulted from poverty by beauty contests in the '50s and '60s to hood-ornament fame and a six-figure salary promoting four-speed transmissions as the sultrily attired Miss Hurst Speedshifter. She first won Miss Georgia Poultry, then Miss Atlanta International Raceway.

"That was my first big break," she says. Then came Miss Firebird, a spread in Sports Illustrated. And suddenly, the 5-foot-6 dental technician with "a big chest," as she puts it, was Big Time, a pioneer and role model for other aspiring beauty queens. "We've all been in scandals," she says. "But Marla has always been very lovely. My attitude is as long as they're talking about you, you're still alive."

That sort of scrappy spirit has informed the history of Dalton, once a bustling railroad depot halfway between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn. Its population dwindled from 2,000 to 200 after Union soldiers destroyed it in 1865. "Then all the veterans came back and rebuilt," says Polly Bogges, local historical society director.

By 1885, Crown Cotton put in the first big mill, and locals began using fabrics from the mills to make chenille bedspreads. In World War II, parachutes, backpacks and tents for the troops came off the town's assembly lines. Afterward, innovators developed modern carpet-making machines, labor moved in, and lots of millionaires were born, among them New Yorkers come south and country boys who got rich quick too.

Both Maples and Norville grew up comfortably, and they were exposed to sophisticated outsiders moving in. "With our international industry and people from all over the world, it's a rather cosmopolitan small town," says Chamber of Commerce chief George Southerland. "Young people growing up in Dalton see people with a lot of money, and if you don't have it, you see those who do and it kind of makes you stretch to do better than you normally would."

Naturally, the moguls wanted the best education -- and culture -- for their children and their employees. A ballet company was born; drama was supported. (A local theater guild dates back 100 years.) Stan Maples, Marla's father, whose family once owned a concrete block factory, auditioned for "Ted Mack's Amateur Hour" and sang at the Chattanooga opera. He's still sought after to sing at weddings and funerals.

Support for the public schools is high. In 1984, Dalton High was one of five Georgia schools honored by the U.S. Department of Education as a National School of Excellence. Football mania is epidemic. Season tickets are viciously fought over in divorce settlements. Boys vie for positions on the Dalton Catamounts' starting lineup; girls compete to become cheerleaders.

"School spirit isn't just screaming cheerleaders, it's screaming students," says Bill Chappell, 57, legendary head football coach for 26 years, with a remarkable record of 245 wins, 61 losses and seven ties. Deborah Norville once marched in Dalton High's band. At Northwest Whitfield High, Marla Maples, a varsity girls' basketball player, was elected homecoming queen.

"We've had good schools and encouraged girls to take part in dramatics," says Peggy Bogges, whose daughters grew up with Norville. "We've always had a good turnout for Junior Miss and Miss Georgia pageants, and several girls have gone on to win prizes."

But the town has more winners than just Deborah and Marla. A Dalton woman who was a Miss Georgia runner-up appeared on "In the Heat of the Night" last week. And there's a Dalton boy who made it all the way to the soaps: Lane Davies of "Santa Barbara." "Dalton looks up to beauty queen winners," says University of Tennessee student Meredith Burns, 21, the reigning Miss Dalton. "We're not just a bunch of dumb blondes."

Indeed, Deborah Norville is far more than "just beautiful," says friend Susan Trevitt, who owns the local Dairy Queen. "She's smart and talented" -- a former Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Georgia -- and hardly deserves the predatory image she's been given, Trevitt says. "She's no bloodthirsty piranha like the media has portrayed.

"After she lost the national Junior Miss pageant, she wasn't crushed," recalls Trevitt. "She didn't say, 'I was prettier than the winner, I should have won.' She makes an effort to get what she wants, but not come hell or high water."

But some still blame Norville for not standing by her man in 1984, when former Atlanta Falcons star-turned-sportscaster Harmon Wages was busted for cocaine possession. Their romance soured quickly. Called as a prosecution witness during his 1985 trial, she testified she ended their long relationship when she discovered he had broken his promise to her to stop using drugs. As his attorney stood to cross-examine her, Wages put a hand on his arm and, with a chivalrous tug, sat him back down.

Wages was subsequently convicted of four charges of cocaine possession. He refused to turn government informant and wound up serving a three-month prison sentence. He's now out of jail, working in sports broadcasting and public relations. "I wish Harmon well," she said after he was released.

"She has principle and character," says Trevitt. "When people were accusing her of stabbing Jane Pauley in the back, she told me, 'Sure, it bothers me, but I'm just lucky I'm here.' She's worked very hard. A lot of people misjudge her because she's beautiful."

Some Daltonians are afraid Maples will be misjudged too, and the town along with her. "Home breakers?" asks a leading local businessman. "That's not the product we want to be famous for."

"It's great we have someone nice and pretty enough to be on 'Dallas,' " says Sherrie Metcalf, who runs the Oakwood Cafe with her husband, "but now that this {the Trump affair} has surfaced, she won't be recognized as a movie star, she'll be recognized as Donald Trump's mistress. After all, he is married."

"We've still got Debbie Norville," consoles her husband, who counts the Norville and the Maples families as regulars for his tasty down-home cooking.

Downtown at 10 p.m., it was cold and wet. A monster rainstorm had washed out roads around Dalton, killing one person, leaving 1,000 homeless in North Georgia and forcing the cancellation of a high school basketball tournament. But nothing had doused the spirit of the young and the restless enough to keep them from cheering their "girls" or swapping their own love stories as they cruised from the mall to Main Street, Trans-Ams and pickups rumbling, stereos blasting in the weekend mating ritual.

"I'd love to be in Marla's shoes," sighed one 28-year-old (blond) millworker, exploring the footloose life after marriage at 17, four children and a divorce three years back. "He liked to drink and run around, so I left. He didn't want to settle down and I did. Now I don't. I'm a late bloomer."

A 23-year-old (brunet) county schoolteacher on the prowl adds that chasing rich men is "the only way out of Dalton. I'd marry for money. I didn't do it the first time and it didn't work out. I was in love with a poor guy who wanted to run around. ... It doesn't matter to me if a woman earns it or marries it. I work now and I'm still broke."

She's wild about Maples, even though they've never met. "If {Trump} was happy at home, he wouldn't be with her," she says. "Georgia peaches are sweeeeeeet!"

"Ooooooeeeee!" echoes her friend.

Maples's fans were quick to take up her cause the other night at a local drama fund-raiser for Dalton High's band. "It's not like Donald Trump got trapped," says Jamie Ball, 17, a jazz band member. "He's a big boy."

"Heavens to Betsy, she's no homewrecker," says Margaret Culberson, who helped both Maples and Norville in their quests for teen beauty titles. "If she's fallen in love with him, that's one thing, but she wouldn't set out to hurt anyone.

"We were all tickled to death when we heard about Marla and Mr. Trump," she goes on. "Who wouldn't be? Donald Trump would be lucky to get her. She's a honey."

Culberson, an elegant, blond mother of three grown daughters who is famous hereabouts for doing comedy routines for line-standers at the county license tag office, hangs in the wings at the Dalton Junior High auditorium, as aspiring Deborahs and Marlas practice song-and-dance routines for the "Straw Hat Follies," the annual fund-raiser for the Dalton High Band. "Marla wasn't the most beautiful girl in town," she says. "We have tons of them, girls who want to do things."

She's close to the Maples family, has been for years. "Right now," she says, "Marla is hurting. She wants to tell her story but she can't, she doesn't feel it's the right time." It was Culberson who prepped her for stardom as a tot when she was growing up outside the city limits in Cohutta. "I had Marla in fashion shows when she was little," she says. "Her mother and I pushed her. Ann {Maples} always wanted to be a professional dancer. That had something to do with her {marriage} breaking up."

As a teenager, Marla took her parents' divorce hard but stayed close to both her mother and father. Both remarried. Her father, a real estate developer fallen on hard times of late, bears a resemblance to Trump, some say. He's married to wife No. 4, a young woman Marla's age.

At Northwest Whitfield High, she dated one boy steadily but not seriously, say friends. Popular, she "was nice to everyone when she didn't have to be," says a former classmate. As a teenager, she was asked by Playboy to pose with her mother for a photo spread but turned down the offer.

"I used to tell all my girls -- Marla too -- 'Save it for the right one,' " says Culberson. " 'Keep your pants on.' And I believe they have." (Through a spokesman, Maples has denied L'Affaire Trump, though New York tabloids have touted a love nest at the St. Moritz Hotel and one headline quotes her as saying, "Best Sex I Ever Had." But close friends here say she is too much of a lady to say it even if she had it.)

After graduating from high school in 1981, Maples enrolled at the University of Georgia and moved into the Tara apartments with another drop-dead blonde, Daltonette Lynn Vaughn Parker, whose aunt, race car beauty queen Linda Vaughn, once dropped in to take them out to dinner with an actor from "Hill Street Blues."

After two years, Parker dropped out to become a flight attendant, model and wife. Marla dated a budding football player who now plays for the Chicago Bears.

When Maples left school, "she was making straight A's, but she had her sights set on acting and she went after it," says Parker, 26, who works as a "nail technician" and cosmetologist at her mother's House of Beauty, a salon where Deborah Norville gets her hair done when she's in town. In the window, there is Mousse Coiffainte for sale, along with such self-help manuals as "Be Your Own Makeup Artist" and a poster touting a tanning special: one month of unlimited visits for $60.

"I've traveled," allows one beautician, "and I'd have to say that the executive secretaries here in Dalton dress with more flair than girls in New York. You should see Marla's mother. She's prettier than Marla will ever be. No wonder Trump's in love with her."

Maples has slimmed down since college days, when she weighed about 135 pounds, Parker says. "Her legs were big back then," she says. "An Atlanta modeling agency told her to lose a little weight. We'd jog and she'd eat health food. Her big thing was sleep. If she didn't get enough, like eight or 10 hours, we'd all know it. She was almost too wholesome. She didn't drink, except maybe a glass of wine. She wasn't a party girl. She's always been classy."

To build up a re'sume', she hit the beauty contest circuit but failed to place at the state level for Miss Georgia Teen. For the talent competition she performed a singing routine. "Her father wanted her to sing," says Parker, "but she could have done better at dancing."

In the summer of '83, carpet manufacturer Dan Bowen dreamed up the Miss Resaca Beach contest as a promotional gimmick, offering $2,000 in prize money and a chance for the winner to earn $150 a day hosting carpet shows. Maples was 19 and "far more mature than most girls her age in dealing with the public," says Bowen, 43. "If some gentleman came on a little strong, she was good at handling it without offending him."

Asked whether Trump sees the same thing he saw, Bowen says, "I always liked Marla. She's sexy in kind of a quiet way. Some women are sexy and try to prove it. Marla doesn't have to. She's a smart girl and she's ambitious. The year she worked for us, she was taking acting and modeling, then she moved to New York. We've heard rumors about Trump for the last year."

Others say the Trumpeting began years ago. "She met him three years ago when she was filming a Tropicana orange juice commercial in Florida," says Culberson, who stays close to the family. "Then later he just bumped into her on the street in New York City and took an interest in her because she's so beautiful. She has that Southern classic dignity."

"She's always liked influential men," says one old friend. "She had to go out with them," adds another. "Younger men were intimidated by her beauty. It's the old story of the prom queen who never had a date."

Her family is mum, but Parker wants to amend reports out of Aspen, Colo., about a spicy Christmas run-in between Marla and Ivana. "Her mother told me, 'Ivana walked up to Marla and told her she wasn't going to get Donald, but Marla just turned away from her. She wasn't going to stand and argue in public.' "

Bowen spoke to her about six months back. "She never mentioned him," he says. "She'd tell me she was staying fairly busy doing small parts in soaps and commercials."

She told one friend that "Star Search" had turned her down. "But she doesn't need 'Star Search' now," says Parker. "I hope she remembers me."Just about every Daltonite is breathlessly awaiting the outcome as even locals begin to wonder what it is about their town and pretty girls? "Our girls eat the peaches and North Georgia apples," says County Commissioner Walter Mitchell, who runs a Chevron station. "And the water coming out of the mountains here is pure. That's how we like our women."

"Maybe it is the water," laughs Bowen, who displays a posters of Marla in a one-piece bathing suit and of other contest winners on an office wall. "But Dalton also has a single industry. You have a disproportionate number of wealthy people for such a small town. So it takes on a character all its own."

Children of the North Georgia rich vacation in Aspen and Europe. International buyers afford a glimpse beyond the mountains, a taste of vast possibilities. Money flows fast, with some carpet moguls freely spending company money to fund a lavish lifestyle, industry sources say.

"Carpet people who make a lot of money," says historian Bogges, "are notorious for trading for younger wives. We've got a lot of young ladies come in here to work looking for rich men, and sometimes they succeed."

Several, in fact, succeeded with Dan Bowen, who pauses, puzzling at the good life since he arrived here in 1976. "I've been married four times," he says. "And I was a happily married man when I first came to town."