WASHINGTON (AP) _ Call it the winter that wasn't.

In the 97 years Uncle Sam has been keeping records, never has a winter been so warm as this December, January and February, the National Climatic Data Center says.

In many parts of Georgia, daffodils and Bradford pears are blooming ''two to three weeks ahead of schedule,'' said Randy Drinkard of the Fulton County Extension Service in Atlanta.

''The winter's been very kind to us,'' said William M. Denihan, who's in charge of Cleveland's fleet of 85 snowplows.

Theodore MacLeod, director of public works in Manchester, N.H., says the city has saved $165,000 on snow and ice control compared with last year.

But Michael Dimenna, owner of Schumann Hardware in East Baltimore, Md., says the mild winter has been bad business for him: He sold fewer shovels than in the previous 20 years.

''I'm running a special on shovels, and on salt, too 3/8'' Dimenna said.

Oregon's nursery business is coming to life a month early with fruit and shade trees already being shipped across the country, said Bob Obermire of the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

''Just about everything we grow here is on the move,'' he said.

Phillip Parker, executive director of the Home Builders of Dayton and the Miami Valley, said Ohio's warmer weather has ''helped us get an early start on production this year. We've had such a mild winter that our building permits are up dramatically.''

A beneficiary of South Dakota's warm winter has been the program that helps low-income people pay their heating bills. Last winter, more than 20,000 households in South Dakota received such aid; this winter there were 1,300 fewer applications, said program director Abbie Rathbun.

Perhaps not so delighted are Pittsburgh's youngsters, who'll put in two extra days of school this year. The two ''snow day'' closings planned into the school schedule weren't needed, said Janet Lochner of the board of education staff.

The warm weather has officials at the nationally acclaimed Philadelphia Flower Show worried because flower show crowds actually decline when the weather outside is delightful, says Lisa Stephano of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

Also concerned is Skip Rutherford of the Arkansas-Louisiana Gas Co., which serves 11 states from Texas from Minnesota.

''The winter months are usually very strong revenue-producing months for natural gas companies,'' he said. ''When you have the warmest winter on record, it will have an effect. As to how much, we simply don't know yet.''

Forest Ranger John Holstine of Logan, W.Va., says more than 27 forest fires were reported in the state last week.

''The nice weather and the fact that we're currently 4 inches low on rainfall for this time of the year may be the contributing factors,'' he said.

Lack of snow could mean problems this summer for New York City, which depends on upstate reservoirs fed by snowmelt for its water.

''Unusually warm temperatures would be nice if it meant that there was snow in the mountains that would melt. But precipitation has been a problem,'' said Joseph Boek, the Catskill district engineer for the New York City Bureau of Water Supply.

And the warmer weather may mean farmers will have more bugs to deal with.

''We're contemplating that it may increase problems with some insect pests, particularly with cotton,'' said Claude Bonner of the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

Kevin Steffey, a bug expert at the University of Illinois, says alfalfa weevils already are in fields in Southern Illinois.

Preliminary figures for the 48 contiguous states showed the average winter temperature at 36.87 degrees Fahrenheit, said meteorologist Richard Heim of the Climatic Center in Asheville, N.C. That topped the previous record holder, 1953-54, when the nation averaged 36. At third was the winter of 1933-34 at 35.97.

It's not a sign of global warming - just the usual cycle of nature, said Steve Nogueira, National Weather Service meteorologist in Concord, N.H.

How people perceive winter is a matter of perspective. Someone who remembers the harsh winters of the early 1980s may consider the current weather mild, he said.

''Think of somebody who was growing up during that stretch and saying, 'God, it used to snow like crazy,''' he said. ''You remember the outstanding years. ... Plus, you were a lot shorter back then.''