As President Clinton whistle-stops his way to Chicago next week in a 400-mile train trek reminiscent of Harry S. Truman's 1948 campaign, helicopters will hover overhead telecasting Clinton's journey to the awaiting convention delegates and television viewers at home.

Televised stops along the way in small towns such as Chillicothe, Ohio, and Wyandotte, Mich., will feature Clinton in his milieu -- wallowing in crowds and speaking on hopeful themes such as opportunity, responsibility and community. He will be accompanied by "American heroes whose lives embody these principles," according to the Clinton-Gore campaign.

If the marriage of old fashioned political ritual and Hollywood production values brings back memories of Clinton's 1992 campaign bus tour across America or his inauguration, it is no surprise. The train trip is the brainchild of the same Hollywood producers -- Harry Thomason and Mort Engelberg.

Both men declined this week to discuss their role in the Clinton campaign. Thomason was particularly vehement about it, preferring to keep the same low profile he adopted after becoming embroiled in controversy in the early days of the Clinton administration. "I won't talk to the press anymore," Thomason said in a telephone call from Chicago.

The White House said Thomason is acting as a creative adviser to the convention, with a focus on Clinton's train ride, and according to convention officials he has been working on his idea for more than a year.

Engelberg, who first made his mark in Hollywood when he produced the action film "Smokey and the Bandit," has been making advance preparations in West Virginia, where the trip will begin Sunday, and will ride with Clinton to direct televised coverage of his appearances at each stop.

Delegates will receive updates of the ride from aerial shots, video tracking maps and live footage of Clinton's speeches along the way, said Gary Smith, another Hollywood producer who is planning the convention. Clinton may even speak to the delegates from the train, he said.

The Clinton-Gore campaign is counting on the train ride to raise the pitch of enthusiasm by the time Clinton arrives at a convention that offers little other suspenseful drama. "This will give the delegates an update of the ride and a feeling of excitement and anticipation," Smith said.

On Thursday night, Clinton's acceptance speech will be introduced with a video documenting Clinton's White House achievements that was produced by Thomason's wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. It was Bloodworth-Thomason who produced the Clinton biography "The Man From Hope," which was aired during the 1992 convention.

The Thomasons, known for their hit sitcoms "Designing Women" and "Evening Shade," are assisting in the convention because their work was so successful in 1992, said Joe Lockhart, Clinton-Gore campaign spokesman. "They know how to make the convention user-friendly for television networks," he said.

While the Thomasons have stayed out of the news recently, their relationship with the Clintons has remained close, according to friends. Clinton still relies on Harry Thomason for media advice, and he and his wife still join the Clintons for weekend retreats or holidays, according a White House adviser who asked not to be identified.

It was Thomason, a former Arkansas high school football coach, who helped transform Clinton from governor of a small southern state to a presidential nominee. He arranged to have Clinton play the saxophone on the "Tonight Show" to repair Clinton's image after his disastrous 1988 Democratic Convention speech, and then assisted in the 1992 presidential campaign and subsequent inauguration.

But it was his role in the early days of the Clinton White House that made him controversial -- a role that began in early 1993, when Rahm Emanuel, director of special projects at the White House, asked Thomason to volunteer his talents. Thomason was given an office in the East Wing and a temporary White House pass and became involved in a range of jobs, from preparing an official report on improving White House staff morale to reviewing drafts of a State of the Union address.

When the White House fired seven travel office employees in May 1993 for alleged mismanagement, Thomason emerged as a central figure in the events leading up to the firings. The action created a firestorm of criticism, forcing the White House to reprimand four administration officials and suspend Thomason's work on the White House image project.

Thomason's involvement in the travel office affair spurned a criminal investigation and two multimillion-dollar lawsuits against him. The Justice Department, which conducted the investigation, recently exonerated Thomason after failing to uncover evidence that he violated federal conflict of interest laws in connection with the travel office matter. CAPTION: Hollywood producer Harry Thomason, shown with President Clinton in 1993, is coordinating Clinton's campaign train journey.