VICE PRESIDENT George Bush, sharply criticized in recent weeks for pandering to the conservative movement, is in fact out to split and neutralize right-wing opposition to his unannounced bid for the presidency. Although Bush has been taking the heat, the right may suffer as well from the division and disorientation caused by Bush's tactics.

At a time when conservatives can claim to dominate the agenda and the ideology of Republican presidential politics, Bush's goal is to divide the right early in the campaign to prevent Rep. Jack Kemp of New York -- or any other candidate -- from getting the support of a united conservative wing.

Bush's performance at a series of conservative events over the past two months has provoked a firestorm of criticism from conservative and liberal columnists -- a storm far more intense than anticipated by his strategists:

*"Smarmiest" -- Lars-Erik Nelson, New York Daily News.

*"Raises the question whether or not he ever had any principles" -- Tom Wicker, The New York Times.

*"The unpleasant sound Bush is emitting as he traipses from one conservative gathering to another is a thin, tinny 'arf' -- the sound of a lapdog" -- George F. Will, The Washington Post.

A Bush supporter countered: "When you go hunting in a swamp, you get your boots dirty. But now we've got time for a shoe shine before the primaries begin."

"It's been nasty, but we are getting it over with three years before the election," another Bush aide contended. He noted that waiting until 1988 to address the concerns of the right would not only permit potential opposition to build, but would also subject Bush to charges of special-interest politicking in the heat of the campaign, when it could prove much more dangerous.

"If Gerald Ford had done what Bush is doing now, he never would have been challenged by Reagan," a Bush strategist said, arguing that early accomodation of the right wing is a critical step for a leading "progressive" GOP candidate.

Kemp is the main target of Bush's strategy. Bush succeeded on Jan. 23 in converting what was billed as a Kemp-Bush confrontation before the New York State Conservative Party into a confrontation between Bush and Mario Cuomo, New York's Democratic governor. Kemp dropped to the tail end of the news coverage and a backer of the vice president commented: "His Kemp's oxygen is being cut off. It's iron-lung time for Jack Kemp."

Now Kemp and Bush have completed the first round of major appearances before conservative groups, and Kemp aides concede that Bush has made inroads into what they had seen as their terrain. David Hoppe, Kemp's administrative assistant, acknowledged: "There is a group of people on the conservative side of the Republican Party who look favorably on the vice president."

On the surface, all this kow-towing to the right wing would seem to prove that it is increasing its power and independence. In fact, the reverse may be true: Bush has succeeded in splitting the right, for the moment at least, and there is growing evidence of conflict and deterioration within the middle-aged new right and within the religious right.

The religious right, the most important source of new voters for the GOP in 1984, has already divided into factions. Jerry Falwell, who has endorsed Bush, has been forced by adverse public sentiments to change the name of his organization from Moral Majority to the Liberty Federation. Marion G. (Pat) Robertson, host of the 700 Club and president of the Christian Broadcast Network, is exploring the possibility of making his own run for the nomination. The leadership of Christian Voice, a source of support for Kemp, has split into factions, and the flow of cash to the Christian Voice Moral Government Fund has slowed to a trickle.

Similarly, the American Coalition for Traditional Values, which organized the unprecedented voter registration of white, born-again Christians in 1984, has faded into the minor-leagues now that the 1984 election is over and Republican fundraisers are no longer bringing in large amounts of money.

The National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), a significant factor in the Republican takeover of the Senate in 1980, was a paper tiger in the last two elections. Dependent on publicity, positive or negative, to boost its direct-mail fund-raising, NCPAC now has a hard time attracting any media coverage of its battle against the left.

These divisions on the right are unlikely to create an opening for a more liberal Republican candidate to break into serious competition for the nomination, according to most strategists. Rather, the consensus behind the conservatism of the Reagan revolution, among a broad spectrum of Republican Party activists, is strong enough, barring unforeseen events, to lock out anyone making a challenge from the Republican left. Both Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (Kan.) and former majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (Tenn.) are portraying themselves as conservatives, and both face steep uphill fights to gain competitive stature.

Meanwhile, the conservative right, despite its weaknesses, has already forced both Bush and Kemp to adjust their strategies to its demands.

In 1985, Kemp initially ran a non-ideological campaign. Working, in the words of one conservative activist, on the assumption that he is the Republican Party's "fourth man" -- heir of a conservative lineage running from Ohio senator Robert Taft through Sen. Barry Goldwater (Ariz.) to Ronald Reagan -- Kemp portrayed himself as the candidate who could complete a Republican realignment. He stressed his anti-establishment credentials as a populist tax-reformer who could win the votes of Democratic blue-collar workers and reach out for black support.

Kemp's de-emphasis of his strong anti-abortion position provoked continued complaints from such new-right leaders as Free Congress Foundation president Paul Weyrich and direct-mail specialist Richard Viguerie. These men not only sniped at Kemp but encouraged Robertson to get in the race, undermining Kemp's backing within the religious right.

Faced with the threat of crumbling conservative support, Kemp restored abortion to a central place in both his speeches and his legislative activities. After watching Kemp give an anti-abortion address last fall, Weyrich declared with a smile of satisfaction: "The market system works."

Meanwhile, Kemp's strategists are banking on the theory that press criticism of Bush will pay off once the 1986 elections are over and public attention begins to focus on the differences between the two candidates in position, character and style.

"When you get to the presidency, it's more than left-right," one of the engineers of the Kemp drive said. "It's who has the consistency and the guts to be president. Kemp will be able to say things like: 'If elected, I would fire Secretary of State George Schultz. How about you, Mr. Vice President? I'd replace him with former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. How about you, Mr. Vice President?' How's Bush going to handle that?"

Like Kemp, Bush has been forced to humble himself. At a dinner honoring the memory of William Loeb, late right-wing publisher of the Manchester, N.H., Union Leader, Bush first read aloud from past Loeb editorials denouncing him and then sought to affirm his credentials as a political leader equipped to stand up to communism, outlining his own record in World War II as a pilot shot down in the Pacific.

In appealing to the members of the New York Conservative Party, Bush veiled his privileged, moneyed roots to speak in the vernacular of the streets, using phrases like "cop killers" and saying "Maybe it's the old Navy pilot in me, but I believe you don't cut and run on your friends."

Bush's eastern, upper-class background and roots -- he is the son of a Brahmin Connecticut Senator, was born in an elite Boston suburb, and was educated at Andover and Yale -- are as much impediments to his attempts to soften up the conservative wing of the GOP as his past moderate views.

Over the past 45 years, a central conflict within the Republican Party has been the warfare between the eastern-Wall Street-New England wing, which dominated presidential nominations until 1964, and an anti-establishment, intensely conservative wing, which took root in the rest of the country and gained and has held party power since 1964.

Even in his adopted home state of Texas, where Bush bolsters his conservative credentials by citing his selection as a Goldwater delegate in 1964, he has been identified with the establishment wing of the party.

When he ran as a moderate against Reagan in the 1980 Texas primary, according to a Bush operative, it was "Bush who won the establishment areas in Dallas and Houston, while Reagan won the rest. Bush won the silks and the linens, and Reagan won the polyesters and double knits." Reagan won the primary.

Sensitive to this history, Bush's supporters are attempting to undercut its threat to his nomination. Falwell attempted at the recent Conservative Poltical Action Conference to address this complex issue: "In our experience (political) conversion is usually from the left to the right . . . I hear conversations about where the Vice President was or is or whatever, but I am so glad he is where he is."