Fairfax County Republicans, trounced at the polls in November and bitterly divided for more than two years, may be headed for another battle over the election of a new party chairman.

At issue is who should succeed James D. Swinson, the one-term chairman who is not seeking reelection. With backing from party moderates, Swinson ousted Benton K. Partin as chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee two years ago after Partin had alienated many GOP officeholders by allying the party with religious groups and the New Right.

The new squabbling erupted Tuesday after Robert W. Lauterberg, 30, treasurer of the Sen. John Warner Campaign Committee and a former aide to Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.), announced his candidacy for the party chairmanship.

Some party activists accused Lauterberg, whose candidacy has been endorsed by a wide array of GOP officials, including Swinson, of torpedoing an informal selection process aimed at unifying the party around a consensus candidate.

Lauterberg said he never endorsed the process, devised by a group called Unity '88.

Unity '88 is this year's version of Unity '87, a political action committee formed last year to raise money for Republican candidates and unify the Swinson and Partin factions.

According to Michael W. Thompson, one of its founders, the group hoped to devise a process in which 48 local party officials and activists, divided evenly between Swinson and Partin supporters, would screen potential candidates and indicate their preferences for chairman before the candidates filed to run. Officials hoped such a procedure would yield candidates with support from both sides and help avoid the bitter arguments that marked past campaigns.

The first "winnowing out" of potential candidates was to have occurred at a meeting last night. However, after party officials arrived, Thompson told them the process was "dead" because Lauterberg had officially filed to run.

Earlier, Thompson told a reporter that Lauterberg had made "a preemptive strike" by announcing his candidacy before the meeting. Thompson said Lauterberg appeared to have broad support and probably would have been selected by the Unity '88 group anyway.

Lauterberg, a staff manager for Bell Atlantic Corp. and a county resident since 1979, said the Unity '88 selection process was not fully explained to him, but that he was "not trying to preempt the process." However, he said he would have run for chairman regardless.

The outgoing chairman, Swinson, said before the meeting: "We have a party organization, which in my opinion is quite sufficient to support our needs {for selecting a chairman}. Unity '88 is spinning their wheels."

Partin said he, too, did not support the Unity '88 process.

Dave Foreman, a former party chairman and founder of Unity '88, said at last night's meeting that the breakdown of the group's process means "there's going to be a fight and everybody will be happy."

Most others at the meeting disagreed, saying that Unity '88 serves a vital function by bring warring parties together.

Some party activists see the chairmanship election as the first battleground for expected gubernatorial candidates J. Marshall Coleman and Parris. A number of party officials have said they believe Lauterberg favors Coleman, a former state attorney general, and could influence Fairfax's 508-member delegation to vote as a bloc for him at next year's GOP convention.

The new party chairman will be selected at a countywide convention April 30.