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ENTERING ITS third season, "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" has become a bona fide hit.

So strong has ABC's Sunday night updating of the Superman legend become that it is not only chasing NBC's "seaQuest DSV" to another night, but it's sending CBS's "Murder, She Wrote" packing as well.And at the center of the show's appeal is the relationship between the two lead actors - Teri Hatcher (Lois Lane) and Dean Cain (Clark Kent/Superman). As a matter of fact, as the romance between Lois and Clark has heated up, so have the ratings.

"We found that the more romantic they got - the more we pushed them into a romantic place - the audience seemed to respond to that," said executive producer Robert Singer. "You could almost chart the ratings of the week following some real push in the relationship, and you would see the ratings would spike. So it doesn't take a genius to say, `This is the path that we should pursue.' "

But all this talk of chemistry between the two characters - and the two actors - comes as at least a bit of a surprise to Hatcher.

"Just a couple of days ago we were shooting a scene and I sort of said, `Isn't it funny that we have this chemistry on-screen and everybody thinks we're this cute couple and we're just not attracted to each other in real life?' " Hatcher said. "And (Cain) sort of went, `We're not?'

"And then I said, `Well, no.' "

It's not that Hatcher finds Cain unattractive or anything, but working together so closely takes any romance out of it for her.

"It's just, we work together 15 hours a day and you know every little pimple and whatever and how you look. And who's attracted to that?" she said. "And I guess mostly I really just thought, `How could anybody be attracted to me if they had to be with me 15 hours a day?' "

(Hatcher, by the way, is married to actor Jon Tenney. And Cain is dating model Gabrielle Reece.)

As far as Cain is concerned, he and Hatcher look like they're attracted to each other on TV - and that's what counts.

"You take two different people and you put them together, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't," Cain said. ". . . I think you could even have a tremendous attraction in real life and maybe it doesn't transfer to the screen. I think we're just lucky that what we do transfers."

And, as actors, it's sort of a case of opposites attracting.

"As an actor, I like to react as opposed to cause tremendous turmoil or do things. And she sort of causes a lot of turmoil and does a lot of things," Cain said. "So, for me, it's a lot easier to react off of that."

Both stars, as well as the show's executive producer, agree that "Lois & Clark" really got on track in the middle of last season - when a continuing thread of the burgeoning romance between the two lead characters was woven into the episodes. In the midst of fighting villains and saving the world, Lois and Clark fell further in love.

"I think for me, without a doubt, that's what it was that made things work," Cain said.

"We mapped it out very specifically for the last half of the season to end up where we did. And it worked," Singer agreed.

As a matter of fact, things progressed so far that in May's season finale, Clark proposed to Lois. Viewers don't know yet what her answer was - it's a to-be-continued cliffhanger.

"We had that in mind and wanted to see how it went," Singer said. "We felt that the chemistry between Teri and Dean would certainly support this kind of romance. And I think it has."

Where it goes from here, no one is saying. As a matter of fact, even the stars didn't know which of three season finale endings they filmed would make it on the air - yes, no or to be continued.

"I didn't know what they were going to air until I watched it when the rest of the country did," Hatcher said.

The three would not, of course, give a direct answer as to what Lois' answer turns out to be. But there were some hints.

"We're into some territory here, without giving anything away, that is very exciting and very fun," Cain said with a laugh. "And to be honest, it's a joy to come to work every day."

Singer acknowledged that he's entering "dangerous waters" by heating up the romance between Lois and Clark - and, possibly, taking them to the altar. Television is littered with shows that thrived on sexual tension but couldn't survive a release of that tension - everything from "Moonlighting" to "Northern Exposure." Even "Cheers" couldn't keep the on-again, off-again romance between Sam and Diane going indefinitely.

"But we're more convinced that you can't play a pat hand, I think, especially in a really highly competitive time period like we're in," he said.

Indeed, "Lois & Clark" faces some pretty stiff competition in the fall. NBC will be moving "Mad About You" opposite the show on Sundays at 7 p.m., and CBS is putting another hit sitcom, "Cybill," in the time slot.

"I think they're very tough," Singer said. "I'm hopeful that our audience is loyal to us. I think from the beginning of this show . . . there was a core audience that wanted to watch this show. That stayed with this show though various ups and downs. . . .

"It's a tough time period, but we're the only drama in the time period now, so I think if people want to spend an hour with a show, they'll come to us."

And Singer is also promising that, whatever happens with the romance between Lois and Clark, it won't happen quickly. He talked of obstacles along the way, and a sort of one-step-forward, two-steps-back approach.

"I think our plan for this year is really well mapped out," Singer said. "And I don't feel that there are any real lulls. . . . And yet it takes a while to get where we're going."