THE sudden rise of media magnet Steve Forbes in the race for the Republican presidential nomination may well be the latest manifestation of the American public's enduring discontent with the state of Washington politics. Mr. Forbes is this year's darling of the anti-incumbency set - a role played last time around by Ross Perot.
On another level, however, Forbes's success may reflect a GOP that isn't nearly as monolithic as it seemed in 1994, when it won control of Congress. It also shows that at the grass roots the GOP may still be out of sync with its front-runner, Sen. Bob Dole.
In fact, some in the party now worry that if the GOP fails to rally around Senator Dole - or any other nominee - by the end of February, the swift succession of primaries in March could fracture the party along fault lines represented by the candidates' differing brands of conservatism, imperiling its drive to unseat the Democratic White House incumbent.
''The whole front-loading of the primary schedule was a bomb waiting for Steve Forbes to
says Kevin Phillips, director of the American Political Report, a newsletter in Bethesday, Md. ''If Dole unravels, the Republican Party may unravel.''
Differences within the Republican Party are nothing new. Reagan tax cutters went rounds with deficit hawks during the 1980s. Presidents Ford and Bush faced primary challengers. But internal splits mean less when a party is in the minority, and therefore doesn't control the agenda.
The Republican takeover of Congress in November 1994 altered the stakes between the party's rival conservative camps. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his band of freshman radicals seized an agenda of federal deconstruction. But Senate majority leader Dole, a lifelong moderate, remained the GOP's heir apparent to the nomination.
Dole adapted himself to the Gingrich course, but it was an uncomfortable fit. When the budget stalemate finally forced a split, Forbes found an opening. Frustrated by government shutdowns and grousing politicians, the public once again listened to the calls of an outsider.
''The GOP, from a tactical point of view, tended to overreach,'' says California GOP strategist Steve Merksamer. ''Now the primaries are exposing the fault lines in the party.''
The question now is whether Forbes has truly burst Dole's bubble, and if so, what forces he has set in motion within the party.
There are roughly five conservative strains represented in the campaign. Dole is a business-establishment moderate. Forbes, whose central issue is the flat tax, is the Reagan supply-side optimist. Pat Buchanan espouses a tough-trade populism. Lamar Alexander, a former governor, pushes federalism. And Sen. Phil Gramm, closest ideologically to Gingrich, is a bootstrap Sun Belt conservative.
If Iowa and New Hampshire, the first significant contests in the nomination race, back Dole, the party will likely avoid a messy debate over ideology. Dole represents continuity.
But it is just as likely three or four candidates could still be in the race at the end of February, in which case the party could be in for a bruising debate over tax reforms, abortion, trade, and deficit reduction.
Forbes appears to be getting stronger by the day. And the primary schedule is kind to him. He is leading in Arizona and rising in Colorado, both of which follow on the heels of the New Hampshire primary.
''Right now, Dole is ahead in Colorado, but people anguish that he might not be able to win against Clinton,'' says Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based pollster. ''Forbes has the potential to build support here outside the party structure.''
Pat Buchanan, who on Tuesday night upset Gramm in Louisiana, enjoys comfortable support in Iowa. As long as Buchanan is around, he'll keep abortion and trade on the table.
If these two candidates can hold their ground, ''a runaway train effect could happen,'' argues political scientist Barbara Sinclair at the University of California, Riverside, producing a muddy picture at the end of March and leaving the nomination suspended until the convention in August.
That's bad for the GOP, Mr. Phillips says. ''If it's knockdown, drag out at the convention, it provides an opening for Ross Perot.'' As in 1992, a three-way race favors Clinton.
But Mr. Merksamer says the confusion could keep the Democrats off balance too. ''If it stays muddy,'' he says, ''it keeps the GOP primaries interesting, our candidates on the cover of Time magazine, and the president from focusing his attack.''