IS PAT ROBERTSON the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination? He's giving signs that he thinks so. Last week in Virginia Beach, he stood beside a 4-foot-high pile of petitions which he says were signed by 3.3 million people -- 300,000 more than the goal he'd set for himself. "The people," he says, "are urging me to run." He says that he's raised and spent more than $10 million -- more even than the $9 million George Bush's campaign had raised through this past June. He boasts of his victory in several early contests, notably the first-place finish in the Iowa Republicans' "Presidential Cavalcade of the Stars." And so he has become the latest to announce that he will announce -- on Oct. 1 -- that he is a candidate for president.

It's possible to challenge each of Mr. Robertson's claims. There's no independent verification of the petition signatures, of course. He has not given any detailed accounting of money raised and spent; as a noncandidate still, and one who has decided to refuse federal matching money, he's not covered by federal reporting requirements. The Iowa straw poll was taken at an affair where people had to pay a $25 admission fee to vote; the Robertson forces simply out-organized the opposition.

But Mr. Robertson is right in saying it means something. Many observers figured that the Jim and Tammy Fae Bakker scandal would demoralize Mr. Robertson's following of evangelical Christians and cultural conservatives. But it didn't demoralize the 1,293 Robertson backers who showed up at the Cavalcade of Stars and cast 34 percent of the ballots, and it evidently hasn't demoralized the thousands of people who have signed Robertson petitions and given him money. The television evangelist and Christian broadcaster has a sizable constituency -- just how sizable we'll discover in the Michigan and Iowa caucuses next January and February.

The interesting question is whether Mr. Robertson can convert good showings in caucuses, where a relatively small number of enthusiasts can make a difference, to good showings in primaries, with their much broader electorates. He believes he can, and he is already broadcasting TV spots in South Carolina, whose Republicans vote the weekend before Super Tuesday. Television is the medium in which he has made his living, and he says "it takes a little while on TV, four or five minutes, to switch 40 percent of the totally negative people into 'let's take a second look.' " Most political pros and all of his opponents believe he doesn't have a chance once the electorate expands, and polls show that he has a lot of drawbacks. But the enthusiasm of his supporters and the organization of his campaign in the early caucus states suggest he may do well enough there to give him the chance he says he can take advantage of to become a serious candidate for the presidency