From the sun-swept Spanish Steps to the vaulting Sistine Chapel, Today's Easter time visit to Italy was more than a picturesque Roman holiday. Despite the blessing of Pope John Paul II, the purpose of the $850,000 trip was more secular than spiritual. Willard Scott, 51, Today's irrepressible weatherman, put it best. "Friends, Romans, countrymen!" Scott declaimed from the Coliseum. "I come to bury David Hartman, not to praise him."

Veni, vidi video. Today's Roman conquest (which won raves from critics and public alike) was an attention-getting salvo in a new, unholy war between the morning news shows. The a.m. anchors are traveling the world like space-age emperors, engaging in foreign conflicts to win dominance at home. This week, on the 10th anniversary of the American withdrawal from Vietnam, Bryant Gumbel will anchor Today live from Ho Chi Minh City. (ABC will feature live and taped reports from Vietnam by correspondent Steve Bell; CBS has already countered with a taped report by Walter Cronkite.) On May 3 Good Morning America's David Hartman will report live from Bonn, where President Reagan will attend an economic summit conference. During the week of May 6, CBS Morning News anchors Bill Kurtis and Phyllis George will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II with live reports from London, Paris and East and West Berlin. GMA will have taped European reports by Hartman. Today will feature correspondent Bob Jamieson live at the Berlin Wall.

Morning news shows have encamped abroad before, but these dizzying itineraries of marathon live broadcasts are signs of high-stakes combat. With an audience of 15 million and a combined estimated $180 million in ad revenues this year, the spoils are worth fighting for. For the first time in three years, NBC's No. 2-rated Today is challenging ABC's Good Morning America for first place. (CBS Morning News remains rutted in third.) The two superpowers already compete fiercely for dial-stopping celebrities. (GMA makes a convincing—some say arm-twisting—argument for exclusivity. Both shows guarantee certain celebs multipart interviews, which explains, for example, why Today recently guaranteed Billy Joel a five-parter.) In a tight race, travel can make the difference. NBC started the road war last fall with Today's week-long live telecast from the Soviet Union. The venture gave new legitimacy to anchor Bryant Gumbel, 36, a former sports-caster, who was praised for his interviews with Russian leaders. "We're engaged in hand-to-hand combat," says Today's pugnacious executive producer, Steve Friedman. "Let's hope David Hartman is not ready for a fight."

No such luck. "I've got the best job in TV, and I'll be dragged kicking and screaming from it," vows Hartman, 49. After Today beat GMA in the ratings two weeks running, the first time since 1982, Washington Post critic Tom Shales wrote, "The usual industry sources claim [Hartman] staged one of his usual reported tantrums upon learning of the calamitous mishap." One former GMA staffer speculates, "They were bound to be slitting their throats over there, if David wasn't doing it for them." Hartman vehemently denies such stories. "I don't usually respond to lies," he says, referring to the Post item. "At that time, I was out of town on vacation, and I didn't even know the ratings."

He does now. In the past year, Today's share of the audience (percentage tuned in) has increased, while GMA's has slightly declined. Noting Today's momentum, Jane Pauley, 34, observes, "The atmosphere around here is restrained euphoria."

Hartman is statesmanlike in public about Today's inroads. "The increased competition keeps us on our toes," he says. "It's good for all three shows."

Glamorous locations and newsmaking guests aside, TV consultants insist that the anchors hold the key to viewer loyalty. The morning shows offer different kinds of TV marriages. GMA's Joan Lunden, 34, has beefed up her role, but she is clearly subordinate to Hartman, the undisputed star of the show. An ex-TV actor (Lucas Tanner), Hartman remains extremely popular with the young women who are most attractive to daytime advertisers. (Today traditionally has appealed more to men than has GMA.) On CBS Bill Kurtis and Phyllis George look like a couple who are staying together for the sake of the kids. Although they're friendly off-camera, Kurtis has made no secret of his distaste for the bow to showbiz that the newly hired George represents. Pauley and Gumbel have a more equal, 1980s-style partnership. Says one industry observer: "On Today I feel that I'm watching a liberated marriage."

When Gumbel was hired three years ago for the No. 1 spot on the show, Pauley admits, "I wanted the job." With his sometimes barbed remarks on-camera, Gumbel didn't help. "I'm terribly self-confident," he says. But, since Pauley's return to Today last year, after the birth of twins, she has won praise as a seasoned newswoman who can handle a variety of topics. "I'm very happy with my role now," she says. The working mom prepares at home so that she can be with her children. "I'm a better interviewer now because I'm more efficient." Are Bryant and Jane friends off-camera? "Our families see each other on the road," says Gumbel. "After two hours on the show, we don't spend a lot of time together. But we trust each other."

In coming months, the ratings are likely to seesaw between GMA and Today for first place. GMA's strategy is don't panic. The week after Today's Rome trip, Hartman went to Las Vegas to cover the Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns fight. But, says Executive Producer Phyllis McGrady, GMA plans no other trips beyond Europe. Instead, so far, the show is responding with family fare, such as a series on adolescence. CBS Morning News will continue to refine its magazine-style format. Jokes Executive Producer Jon Katz: "We're ducking the cross fire between the other two." And Today will go after headline-making stories (like Jane Pauley's interview with recanting rape victim Cathleen Webb), while regularly taking to the road. Later this month Today will make a whistle-stop train trip through the Midwest.

In Today's crusade against GMA, the entrenched Hartman could be weakening; he may be suffering from NBC's new popularity in prime-time shows. One theory is that morning viewers leave the dial where it was when they turned off the set the night before. Still it will take more than two winning weeks to unseat David Hartman. (Rome was a standoff, with NBC declaring itself a winner and ABC calling the week a tie.)

No matter. Today's generals are convinced that those who sample their road show will stay tuned for the regular attractions. "We have the better program," insists Gumbel. "Neither GMA nor Today can leave the other in the dirt, but their days of dominance are over." Hartman—who once contemplated a professional baseball career—takes the longer view. He responds with his slider, a gee-whiz grin. "It's just like baseball," he philosophizes. "You have to hit the ball in every game."