Moderates in Fairfax County's Republican Party are getting their first licks of revenge and finding, not surprisingly, that it tastes sweet. But in the process of wresting control of the party from their conservative rivals, they may leave Republicans more badly divided than before.

In the wake of balloting last week, it appeared that Benton K. Partin, the conservative retired Air Force general who has led -- and, to an extent, remade -- the county GOP since 1982, would fall victim to an assault from his left flank staged by all but a few of the county's elected Republican officeholders.

If Partin is defeated in his bid for a third term as county GOP chairman, it would signal an upheaval in one of the largest and most powerful county committees in the state, and perhaps presage a return to the center for the Virginia Republican Party in the wake of its sweeping defeat in statewide races last November.

"I think -- I hope -- that when all this battling is behind us," said state Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr., an Alexandria Republican who opposes Partin, "we will be able to emerge as the party we have historically been in Virginia -- a party of inclusion and not of exclusion."

The results are not final. In fact, Partin has adopted a never-say-die posture, promising to dislodge delegates now in the column of his challenger for the GOP helm, former Fairfax County sheriff James D. Swinson.

Nonetheless, Swinson's 6 percent edge in delegates (he leads by about 271 to 237) has convinced his supporters that the battle is all but won. Turning up the psychological heat, Swinson's forces are calling on Partin to bow out of the race rather than carry his fight into the April 12 party convention.

Whether Partin can change enough minds is doubtful. A surer bet is that arm-twisting, hyperbole and parliamentary maneuvering will produce a bitter convention and hard feelings all around even after the shouting is over.

The stakes in the battle for the Fairfax GOP are ill defined. The moderates, who say they have been shut out of power in the party for Partin's four-year tenure, are not suggesting that they will nominate drastically different kinds of candidates for public office.

Although some assert that Partin's conservatism and autocracy brought the party to its knees and cost GOP gubernatorial nominee Wyatt B. Durrette the victory he desperately needed in Northern Virginia, it's a hard line to sustain.

Under Partin's watch, Republicans have taken control of the county Board of Supervisors for the first The real questions are about who will tend to the nuts and bolts of party machinery . . . and who will get the plum assignments. time in a century and kept a lock on the congressional seats in both the 8th (Rep. Stan Parris) and 10th (Rep. Frank Wolf) districts.

As for Durrette's failed candidacy, it's a better argument that he shot himself in the foot with a bickering campaign staff and poor political judgment.

Rather, the central complaint of the moderate rebels is that Partin has refused to work with Republicans whose world view on social issues does not match his own.

While both sides say the other is out of step with the electorate, the more fundamental source of the dispute is not deep-rooted ideological differences, but an old-fashioned struggle for control.

The real questions are not about church and state, abortion and gun control. They are about who will tend to the nuts and bolts of party machinery: who will hold the district chairmanships, who will control the party conventions and who will get the plum assignments.

For Partin's two terms in office, his backers have filled those positions. Now, say the moderates, it's their turn. Although they depict their motives as party unity and harmony, old-fashioned revenge may also play a part.

Paradoxically, perhaps the most likely winner to emerge from the battle is not one faction or the other within the GOP, but the Fairfax County Democratic Party.

Democrats, already riding high after the Baliles-Wilder-Terry sweep in November, watch gleefully as the Republicans bash each other, and calculate how the GOP grudge match could benefit Arlington County Board member John E. Milliken's bid to unseat Wolf this fall in the 10th District congressional race.

Officials in both parties regard Milliken, who was chairman of the Arlington County Board last year, as a formidable challenger to Wolf, who is a conscientious but rather colorless congressman.

"Watching the ultraright fighting the far right is sort of amusing," said Harris N. Miller, who became the Fairfax Democratic Party chairman two months ago in a peaceful transition from the leadership of outgoing chairman Pat Watt, who announced last year that she planned to step down. "These are the kinds of battles that are not easy to heal. It gives John Milliken good hope."