If anyone understands why Robert J. Dole and President Clinton are courting the vote of "soccer moms," it should be Joanne Waugh. Wearing a seasonal tweed jacket and watching her 6-year-old daughter, Addie, chase a ball around a muddy field in Rockville yesterday, she seemed to fit the profile precisely. But as soon as she heard the phrase, she bristled.

"I've been wondering! What does it mean?" said Waugh, 40, a Bethesda mother of three who first heard the phrase a few days ago on Rush Limbaugh's radio show. "Is it derogatory? Do only liberals play soccer?"

This is the year that "soccer mom" rose from suburban cliche to political symbol. For campaign strategists and political journalists, it was a pithy way to describe the harried-but-concerned suburban homemakers who are seen as a key demographic group in the presidential election. Democrats tried to woo soccer moms with talk of health care and education; Republicans tried to involve them in concerns about teenage drug use.

But they remained a backstage buzzword until Dole dared utter their name aloud.

"There are real Americans out there with real problems," he said during the Oct. 16 presidential debate in San Diego. "Soccer moms or the single parents or families working or seniors or people with disabilities."

To find out what real soccer moms think about their newfound influence in national affairs, visit the playing fields of Montgomery County, home to 14,000 young soccer players in the largest youth league in the country.

"I think it's great!" said Ej Schaeffer Landsman, a league administrator, coach and proud soccer mom of three. Her social life revolves around the sport, she said. Her friends want to make T-shirts that read "Politically Correct Soccer Mom" and wear them for the rest of the campaign.

Does she hear more politicians talking about the issues that matter to her?

"No," said Landsman, 42, a Rockville Democrat. "But I think it's pretty great that they've finally recognized us as an intelligent force."

Obviously, the pols are trying to win over a larger group than those found on Saturday morning sidelines. "Soccer mom" is not a strict category. So why not call the voting bloc "Little League mom?" Or "Scout mom"? Or even "car-pool mom"?

"We've been trying to figure it out ourselves the past few months," said Kit Simeone, spokeswoman for the U.S. Youth Soccer Association.

Landsman argued that soccer is the most democratic sport, enlisting girls as well as boys, so it involves many more mothers. "You don't have to be particularly talented. You don't have to be particularly large," she said. "It can be on the streets with a ball or on a field. Kids can pick it up and make their own rules."

"Soccer mom" is a phrase fraught with meaning, said Marshall Blonsky, a noted authority on semiotics -- the study of signs and systems of communication -- who has made a career of probing the deeper cultural significance of our institutions and symbols.

"It's touching the live wire of contemporary ideology," he said. The football mom was yesterday's mom, he said. Soccer, which is booming in popularity, rejects the "symbolic killing" of rough-and-tumble football "in favor of an aesthetic of flight, which makes it more modern than football."

So, are soccer moms the liberal-minded cultivators of touchy-feely domestic issues? Not Margie Wilson, 40, who stood on the sidelines yesterday as a tangle of 6-year-old girls flailed at the ball.

"I think I'll vote for Dole," said Wilson, 40, a Bethesda mother of three in a jeans and a Patagonia jacket. "Clinton scares me with foreign affairs. I'd like to see a stronger presence in dealing with the world at large. Go, Kelly! Kick it out of there! Kick it! Nice job, you guys!"

Susan Shaffer said she will vote for Clinton. The Silver Spring mother of two soccer players said the Democrat's views jibe with her own on health reform, education and arts funding. Admittedly, these views have little to do with the time she's spent on the soccer field.

"This is actually my first game," Shaffer, 45, confided. "That's why all those soccer mom stories make me feel guilty."

Lisa Friedman, 40, had little patience for all the recent talk about her demographic group. "It's as if women didn't vote before," she grumbled, watching her son's scrimmage.

Most soccer moms, said the Potomac mother of two, simply can't be bothered with such labels. "You're talking about people whose days are so busy working and taking care of their kids and volunteering at their church or synagogue. Their day starts at 6 in the morning and ends at 11 at night." But that's exactly who the politicians are trying to reach, argued Debbie Pollack, 41. And what issues speak most loudly to them?

"I think it's crime," said the Rockville mother of three sons. "We're living in such a fearful society. . . . "

"The reason these kids are on a soccer field is because their parents are afraid to let them out on the streets. So they have to do all these organized activities, like soccer, that are so stressful for everyone.

"If we didn't have that kind of breakdown in society, we wouldn't be here." CAPTION: Susan Shaffer, with son Jonas, 6, is interested in social issues. She plans to vote for Clinton.