While the Bush administration grapples with the perils of war in 1991, the National Candy Wholesalers Association has set a goal easier to sink its teeth into: retaining the right to sell chocolate cigars.

Congress may be gearing up for a budget battle, but the big knockdown and drag-out fight on the floor this year, as far as the Snack Food Association is concerned, will be over products like Hostess Twinkies and Fritos and what kinds of additives can be used in them.

When Washington lobby groups shape their agendas at the beginning of every year, many take a cue from the White House. "Some listen closely to the State of the Union address," said Bill Rolle of Rolle Communications Inc., a public relations firm. "Then they note down the issues highlighted, try to figure out who will be affected by them and get on the telephone across the country to drum up some clients."

But trade associations, which mostly lobby on behalf of businesses, often resist the temptation to follow the trends the president sets. Numbering more than 3,000, the area's associations represent every industry from asphalt to zippers.

An informal canvass shows that many trade associations are attempting to look beyond the Bush administration's priorities -- and even beyond war and recession -- in determining what issues to follow. For them, specialization is everything.

At The Chlorine Institute, for instance, it's water. The Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing the government's safe drinking water regulations and may be coming out with new rules on how many chemicals and other substances can be used in water at public places such as fountains and swimming pools. Chlorine Institute lobbyist Mark Gallant said his goal is to make sure the rules on how much chlorine can be added are not made too stringent.

The Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils, whose members make mayonnaise, margarine and the like, is keeping an eye on legislation affecting oil refineries, said its president, Robert Reeves.

The names of the institute's members are top-secret, though, Reeves said. "We have good reasons for not revealing them," he said, "but I can't tell you what they are."

At the Snack Food Association, lobbyists continue to chew over the Delaney clause of the Food Safety and Pesticide Authorization Act. The clause restricts the coloring or flavoring that can be added to processed food. At present, the clause only allows additives that pose zero health risk.

"We think the clause is unreasonable and should be repealed," said Steve Eyre. As the association's number one lobbyist, Eyre keeps track of proceedings on the Hill involving products like potato chips, beer nuts and Cracker Jacks.

The Candy Wholesalers Association is focusing on HR 5041, said lobbyist Dennis Lavallee. The bill would ban all tobacco facsimiles, including chocolate cigars, from the open market. Congressional sponsors of the bill think such products encourage smoking. The candy sellers vehemently object.

Though many associations are steering clear of any maneuvering involving the Persian Gulf War, some surprising ones are jumping feet first into the fray.

The National Wooden Pallet and Container Association, for example, has joined a group of defense contractors, Israel-supporters and political hawks in backing a tough policy in the gulf. Pallet Association Executive Vice President John Healy gave the reason. War, while hell on the military and others, is good for the pallet business, he said.

The Composite Can and Tube Institute, whose members make boxes, cardboard rolls used to hold paper towels and other such products, also lobbied for the use of force in the gulf. It was included in a New York Times advertisement, published just before the war began, supporting a strong policy.

Kristen Garland, executive vice president of the Tube Institute, explained why. "Some of our members sell the containers used to transport munitions," she said. "And they do quite a business in wartime. So, of course, the gulf situation might well have an influence on our agenda."

From the Salt Institute to the Society of American Florists, many smaller associations are shunning the big political issues. Instead they are preparing to lobby on fine-print regulations that affect members directly. The list of their interests ranges wide, from Occupational Safety and Health Administration rulings to EPA regulations, from whether cigarette ads should be banned to what kinds of labels should be put on canned goods.

Some associations, apparently fed up with the competition, plan to join the lobby against abuses in lobbying.

The association giants, quite naturally, tackle the big issues. The American Petroleum Institute, which represents the big oil companies, will focus on congressional revision of the Clean Water Act and implementation of the 1990 Clean Air Act, according to its president, Charles Dibona.

Dibona said the petroleum industry took a beating in the Clean Air revisions passed last year and will eventually have to produce reformulated gasoline totaling a quarter of all gas sold in the United States. Working with the EPA to determine the terms of that production is the single biggest item on API's agenda, he said.

He said the oil industry is directly affected by several provisions of the Clean Water Act, including policies on wetlands and well water. Congress is scheduled to start the process of revising the act this year. Dibona said he doubts it will be up for a vote until next year, however.

Among other legislative issues API is tracking is an effort sought by some distributors to prevent refineries from owning gas station franchises. API opposes the measure as anti-competitive, Dibona said. The institute will be seeking legislation that would allow drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge fields in Alaska that have been off-limits to developers.

The National Association of Home Builders has identified the Clean Water Act as one of the five areas in which it is concentrating its lobbying efforts, according to chief lobbyist Robert Bannister. Specifically, the association is seeking to loosen the wetlands provision, which Bannister said has prevented housing construction in some important areas of the country.

According to Bannister, Home-builder lobbyists this year also will focus on an OSHA ruling that would require all home builders to fill out safety reports, the banking reform legislation soon to be put forward by the administration, and environmental regulations on issues ranging from lead exposure to endangered species. And there's always proposals for new tax relief for home buyers.

Also heavily involved in traditional issues is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Offsetting some of the tax burdens put on business in last year's budget package and trying to get legislation that will ease the recession are two priorities of the chamber, said its president, Richard L. Lesher.