Campaign America, Sen. Robert J. Dole's political action committee (PAC), exists for the sole purpose of "supporting Republican candidates, Republican causes and the Reagan agenda," according to consulting director John Maxwell.

Maxwell said that the group has nothing to do with Dole's presidential bid, which is why none of the $6 million it spent in 1985-87 counts against the $27 million spending limit for the primaries set by the Federal Election Commission.

But some of Campaign America's activities -- like those of the seven other PACs associated with 1988 presidential candidates -- look like straightforward presidential electioneering. In the last two years, it has given less than $2 of every $10 it has raised to candidates for office. In the same two years Campaign America has:Bought the voter lists of several dozen towns in New Hampshire, whose key early primary is Tuesday, Feb. 16. Sent thousands of dollars to local Republican candidates and party organizations in the early primary states of Michigan, Iowa and North Carolina. Paid tens of thousands of dollars to a large staff of political consultants and strategists who later went to work for Dole for President. Signed a contract with Dole for President providing for an exchange of all fund-raising lists of "comparable worth."

Campaign America is only one branch of the conglomerate of organizations that has been set up by Sen. Dole (R-Kan.) to receive millions of dollars from corporate and other PACs, wealthy individuals, and a circle of Kansas and Midwest loyalists. In 1987, some $16.2 million in new money went to Campaign America, Dole for President and a newly formed committee called Dole for Senate '92.

Dole's elaborate political-financial complex illustrates how candidates now stretch the limits of federal election spending laws.

Campaign revision laws in the 1970s set ceilings on how much presidential candidates could spend on their primary and general election bids. The reform was intended to create a "level playing field" in which candidates with special access to money would not be unduly advantaged.

One consequence of this was that politicians in both parties soon established their own "multicandidate" political action committees like Dole's Campaign America, ostensibly to support their favorite causes and aid other candidates.

Such committees could receive and donate up to $5,000 per election from an individual or another PAC, compared with the $1,000 allowed for campaign committees. In the guise of supporting candidates and causes -- such as "effective government" or "prosperity" -- presidential hopefuls used their PACs to maintain standing organizations without a formal announcement of candidacy, and without having expenditures from these PACs charged against the FEC's spending limits.

Ronald Reagan and former vice president Walter F. Mondale utilized PACs extensively before announcing their presidential candidacies. An August 1983 brief filed by the FEC's legal office charged that Reagan's PAC, Citizens for the Republic, made "excessive contributions of at least $194,056" to the Reagan for President campaign from mid-February through mid-November 1979. Citizens for the Republic subsequently agreed to pay a $1,000 fine.

That slap on the wrist did little to deter the current crop of candidates from pushing the campaign laws to the limit, election officials said.

"The PACs of presidential candidates represent the skewing of the idea that campaign reform set limits," said an attorney who follows election law. "It's the candidate who says, 'This doesn't sound cricket to me' who loses the advantage."

A government official put it more bluntly: "It's become a tradition. Everybody knows it's going on, but everybody does it."

Prior to this year's election, PACs similar to Campaign America were set up by Vice President Bush, Fund for America's Future; Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), Campaign for Prosperity; Alexander M. Haig Jr., Committee for America; Gary Hart, Volunteer Committee; Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), Effective Government Committee; Pat Robertson, Committee for Freedom, and Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), The Democracy Fund.

Dole set up Campaign America in 1977, before his first run for president. Since then its revenues have risen steadily, reaching $2.4 million in 1987. Dole signed fund appeals and was listed as honorary chairman until he resigned from that position shortly before he announced his presidential candidacy last fall. Robert Ellsworth had resigned earlier as chairman of Campaign America to head the Dole for President Exploratory Committee.

Campaign America's John Maxwell said the committee's purpose is to support Republican candidates and win public backing for programs supported by President Reagan and Dole such as "a strong national defense."

In 1984, Campaign America did contribute heavily to candidates: $323,450 out of $426,223 it raised. Since then, however, the ratio has fallen sharply. In 1985-86, Campaign America took in $3.3 million, but gave only $271,422 to Senate and House candidates.

In 1987, the PAC directed only $50,550 out of $2.4 million in revenues to federal candidates, and several thousand dollars more to local politicians, about 2 percent of the total receipts. That same year the PAC spent a total of $2.8 million. Reports filed with the FEC show that the money went mainly to pay for staff, travel, consultants, direct-mail operations, and computers.

Maxwell attributed the heavy spending to an effort to build "house files" -- lists of hard-core, reliable contributors -- that will be utilized this year to raise money for Republican candidates.

In September and October 1986, Campaign America directed a steady stream of small contributions to local Republican candidates. Most went to Michigan, Iowa, New Hampshire and North Carolina, all early primary states for the 1988 presidential campaigns. Campaign America also transferred $34,676.80 to a Michigan state committee, and distributed that money to 14 local candidates or party organizations.

Maxwell said this could not have had anything to do with the Michigan primary because the pool of presidential delegates already had been selected by then. In fact, Dole and key aides subsequently worked hard to win Republican National Convention delegates in the complicated Michigan selection process, which only ended last month.

Campaign America's agreement to share with Dole for President its lists of potential donors, developed by hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of test mailings, appears to be a significant benefit to the Dole campaign. Maxwell said such sharing agreements are common in the direct-mail business, adding that the PAC would be willing to enter into similar agreements with others if they were interested. Campaign America currently has four agreements with issue-oriented PACs, but none connected to candidates.

Regarding the PAC's purchase of New Hampshire town voting lists in 1986, Maxwell, who joined Campaign America in mid-1987, suggested that it might have been part of the PAC's overall fund-raising program. "One could speculate that the committee thought the best chance for fund-raising was in a state where there was a high level of politicization," he said.

Officials of the Dole campaign and Campaign America said care has been taken to keep the two operations separate, admittedly a tricky job.

For example, John Binder, a Dole volunteer in Boca Raton, Fla., has been reimbursed for travel by Campaign America and by the Dole for President Exploratory Committee, federal election reports show. Binder works for Joseph Reppert, president of Amerifirst Mortgage Co. Reppert, a former press aide to Dole and volunteer in his 1976 campaign for vice president, is finance chairman of Dole for President in Florida. He said he passed on the name of Binder and several other of his officers when they indicated an interest in working for Dole.

Dole campaign officials said Binder's volunteer work for Campaign America consisted of advance work in Georgia in connection with the 1986 reelection effort of U.S. Sen. Mack Mattingly (R-Ga.) and had nothing to do with Dole's presidential bid.

Election officials said the line between Dole traveling the country supporting Republican candidates as Senate majority leader in 1986, and Dole and his staff canvassing state and local organizations and building fund-raising lists for his planned presidential bid is inherently fuzzy.

In 1986-87, Campaign America paid about $50,000 in consulting fees to William Lesher & Associates. Lesher said in an interview that he worked for Donald J. Devine, providing advice on agricultural issues. Lesher said he accompanied Dole to Iowa and South Dakota on a 1986 campaign swing during which Dole and others attended a rural Iowa caucus.

"We worked with Don Devine on what's important to Iowa, like soil conservation," Lesher said. He added that he briefed Devine about agricultural issues in "Super Tuesday and early primary states."

Lesher said he also tried to identify groups and individuals who might be interested in joining Ranchers and Farmers for Dole, one of the Kansas senator's support coalitions.

Devine, whom Lesher was advising, was then being paid $3,000 a week from Campaign America as a consultant. He has since become a senior adviser to the Dole presidential campaign.

Campaign America's revenues have come from many of the same corporations, business groups and wealthy individuals who have backed the other political organizations of the powerful Senate minority leader and member of the Senate Finance Committee. Supporters include PACs and individuals from the world of tobacco, agribusiness, aircraft, life insurance, and sugar. Many of the same donors also have given to Dole's charity, the Dole Foundation, established in 1984 to help the handicapped find jobs.

Dole's courtship of tobacco interests, which dates at least to 1985, is said by political insiders to result partly from his strategy of winning support from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in order to outflank Bush on the right in a key southern state.

In 1985, Dole joined others on the Finance Committee to push through a costly program to help tobacco farmers and the tobacco industry by selling the government's tobacco surplus to cigarette manufacturers at discounts of up to 90 percent.

R.J. Reynolds, U.S. Tobacco Co., and Phillip Morris also subsequently contributed to the Dole Foundation, and U.S. Tobacco made its corporate plane available to Campaign America, which reimbursed the company for its costs.

Another longtime Dole backer is Dwayne Andreas, chairman of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), which profits from tax subsidies and import tariffs advocated by Dole and other farm-state legislators that benefit ADM's ethanol, a fuel distilled from corn. The Wall Street Journal reported last Sept. 25 that Andreas, his relatives, and ADM's political action committee have donated at least $44,750 to Campaign America and to Dole's 1980 and 1986 Senate campaign committees.

Dole groups also have received contributions from at least one individual and one company due to receive tax relief under "technical corrections" to the 1986 tax revision act. Congress is scheduled to vote on the proposed corrections this year.

One of them, Samuel A. Hardage, a Wichita developer, described Dole's role in supporting the relief as "normal constituent service" and "no big deal."

"It was a situation where we were involved in real estate developments based on tax rulings that had been in effect many years. Sen. Dole tried to help us make a fair correction," Hardage said. Congressional sources estimated that the relief, in the form of an exemption from the new real estate depreciation schedule, is worth $6 million.

Hardage, who ran unsuccessfully for governor of Kansas in 1982, contributed to Dole for President in 1987, and Campaign America reimbursed Hardage Enterprises for the use of its plane in 1986. Hardage is a national finance chairman in the Dole for President campaign.

Another prospective beneficiary of a Dole-backed tax change is Koch Industries of Wichita. An attorney for the firm said the company had approached Dole and other Midwest lawmakers in 1986 about allowing Koch Industries to take an investment tax credit on a major oil refinery expansion outside St. Paul, Minn. The attorney said the expansion was well under way when Congress moved to repeal the investment tax credit under the tax revision measure.

The Koch Foundation gave $10,000 to the Dole Foundation last March after having contributed another $10,000 in prior years. David H. Koch, executive vice president, said the Dole Foundation was one of many charities to which the Koch Foundation gives money. Koch himself contributed $1,000 last year to Dole for President.