Dennis Conner is back, and a far cry from the bloated, worried fellow detractors dubbed "the whale" when he skippered the America's Cup loser two years ago. He's shed 45 pounds, "and I'm still going."

The new, slender, upbeat Conner came east from San Diego last weekend to christen Stars and Stripes '85, the first of four 12-meter yachts his Sail America syndicate will build in a bid to retake yachting's top prize in western Australia 18 months hence.

There was a ceremony before the boat was packed up for Hawaii, where it will be sailed all winter, but the real aim of Conner's visit was to wave the flag and dispel the notion his campaign is wallowing hopelessly behind its major U.S. opposition.

The America II syndicate, sponsored by the New York Yacht Club, already has two yachts in the water and has been sailing since last winter, when it shipped its first boat to Australia for a season of practice.

Conner knows that as a result, the world thinks America II is way out front. That troubles him, because in the high-stakes game of America's Cup competition, whoever appears ahead is likely to win the big-time donors, and 12-meter campaigns don't come cheaply.

In an interview, Conner made it clear money -- and nothing else -- is troubling him. "The money is tough," he said. "There's tremendous competition for tax-free donations. There are plenty of worthy causes."

He needs $12 million to campaign properly for the Cup and is only halfway there. Meantime, America II, with a slightly larger budget, has been able to put on a nice show for potential donors and appears well set financially.

"The New York Yacht Club has done a tremendous job of marketing," Conner conceded. "They had the physical elements to show."

But Conner insists his group was spending its time in a better way, and in a rambling, fast-paced chat he was pugnaciously optimistic about every aspect of Sail America's program except the finances.

"Let's look at the boats," he said. "Sure, they have two boats, but how fast are they?

"Our program is science-oriented. That's why we took longer to build a boat. I bet we're spending three times as much on tank-testing and computer modeling as America II. We have a team of three naval architects designing our hulls, overseen by a project manager, plus Boeing and Grumman and 30 other subcontractors.

"We have the second-fastest 12-meter in the world (1983 loser Liberty). Sure, they have boats in the water, but what good are boats in the water if they're not fast?

"Look at experience," said Conner, forging on as he paced his room at the elegant Hotel Pierre. "The guys in our crew have 17 years of experience in actual America's Cup competition. No other group has more than two years experience in the boat.

"Look at helmsmen. I've got 8,000 hours at the wheel of 12-meters. You want names? Okay: Mariner, Valiant, Enterprise, Freedom, Spirit of America, Magic, Liberty, Courageous. I've sailed them all. Nobody else even comes close.

"We have the most experienced management team. We have the top racing sailmakers in the world, North Sails and Sobstad, on our team. So this is where the sailmakers are putting their cards.

"Now we have to put on our show," said Conner, "to get people involved and market ourselves. Look, they have two boats; we have two boats. They're going off to practice; we're going off to practice."

Conner believes that only his syndicate and the America II campaign are legitimate, full-bore U.S. contenders. At least six other U.S. syndicates are mounting campaigns, but so far the signals from the others have not been good.

"Right now we're rating the syndicates on the basis of viability -- whether or not they'll actually get to Perth to compete," said Jeff Spranger, editor of America's Cup Report, an impartial chronicle of the Cup campaign. "We rate America II and Sail America as viable. We're starting to get queasy feelings about (Rod Davis') Eagle Syndicate, and all the others are either iffy or out."

Conner said Stars & Stripes '85, whose underbody was shrouded in drapes for secrecy in New York, will be launched in Hawaii in October along with a second boat, Stars & Stripes '83, to be completed next month in California. These two will race all winter, along with Liberty, and data generated will be used to design a third boat over the winter.

The fourth Stars & Stripes would be designed next summer, and then the best of the lot would go to Perth in October, 1986, to begin competing for the right to race the Aussies for the Cup they won in the biggest upset in yachting history.

As far as that upset is concerned, Conner believes it was the Americans' own fault. "We had our heads in the sand as far as monitoring and surveillance were concerned," he said.

In failing to find out about Australia II's radical, winged keel, which permanently changed the nature of 12-meter design, "we did a lousy job of industrial espionage."

He said that won't happen again.