IF IT SEEMS that you cannot pick up a newspaper these days without reading about Republicans running against other Republicans for congressional leadership and campaign committee jobs, Republicans assailing other Republicans over their policy heresies, Republicans flinging manifestos, newsletters and press releases at each other, the impression is correct.

The battling that has broken out in recent weeks inside George Bush's White House and the Republican Party is not unexpected or unnecessary. It may even turn out to be healthy. But it is mislabeled and misunderstood -- even by some of the participants.

Some of the contests represent no more than conflicting ambitions, but others have the earmarks of deeper political and ideological divisions. And people who are accustomed to seeing the Democrats hurling custard pies and heavier missiles at each other seem shocked that it should be the Republicans who are involved in an uncivil civil war.

They should not be. The closer the GOP coalition comes to majority status, the more likely that splits similar to those the Democrats have faced for 60 years or more will occur. The divisions are partly generational, partly institutional (White House vs. Congress) and, as always in politics, partly personal.

The confusion arises from the effort to cram all this ferment into the convenient conservative vs. progressive dichotomy journalists and politicians alike have used to describe Republican factions since the Bull Moose-Old Guard split between Teddy Roosevelt's and William Howard Taft's forces early in this century. Whatever this is, it's not Eisenhower vs. Robert Taft or Goldwater vs. Rockefeller.

If you ask why the debate has erupted at this particular moment, the obvious answer is that it began with the autumn budget battle. The deficit summit President Bush asked for was endlessly frustrating for congressional Republicans; even those who were in on the negotiations found themselves shunted into a secondary role, as White House Chief of Staff John Sununu and budget director Richard Darman tried to strike a deal with congressional Democrats. When that bargain turned out to include tax hikes along with spending cuts, many Republicans on Capitol Hill rebelled.

Recalling vividly how useful the "no new taxes" pledge had been to Bush in his 1988 campaign for the White House they took it unkindly -- to put it mildly -- when he "caved in" to the Democrats and undercut similar pledges they had made in preparation for their 1990 races. White House arguments that the budget deal would improve prospects for a healthy economy in Bush's reelection year only made many congressional Republicans more convinced he was prepared to sacrifice their 1990 ambitions to help himself in 1992.

That is part of a larger complaint about Bush's leadership -- or really his lack of leadership. Paul Weyrich, the head of the Free Congress Foundation, said, "This is the first time in a long time that the conservative movement has not had a clear leader; I think even Bush would agree he's not that leader today. We are back where we were after the death of Bob Taft and before the emergence of Barry Goldwater and the succession of Ronald Reagan. And when we don't have a leader, we fragment."

Former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, now president of the University of Tennessee, said, "The presidency is preoccupied with war-and-peace questions, and it's virtually a full-time job to stay one step ahead of the world." But after the Cold War, Alexander added, "Americans have to define who we are and what tasks we need to be about, and that job isn't getting done."

In less polite terms, a veteran of past Republican administrations said, "It all goes to the Oval Office. Whatever Ronald Reagan's shortcomings -- and he certainly had them -- he was a leader who gave the party a clear sense of direction. Bush has not done that." As Alexander suggested, the criticism applies particularly to domestic policy -- the area Bush has acknowledged takes second place in his interest to national security and foreign policy issues. And the complaints about the "vacuum" in domestic affairs are sharpened by the election just past and the election campaign soon to begin.

The reason ideological warfare has broken out now, said the Heritage Foundation's Burton Yale Pines, "is that we had the 1990 elections and they were terrible." Republican losses were not severe by historical standards, but the voters cut short the careers of several outstanding House members who were defeated in races for senator or governor. "A lot of good candidates got burned this year," pollster Linda Divall remarked, "and there's a growing frustration within the party that, the way things are going, we're not going to control the House or Senate in the foreseeable future."

Agreeing with that assessment, V. Lance Tarrance, a Houston-based GOP pollster, said, "I have not seen as much disappointment and frustration at the local level in 20 years as I've seen since this election. To the rank-and-file volunteer precinct captains, the budget agreement looked like appeasement. They're not so much angry as disappointed and confused as to what our direction and even our expectations should be. We've won five of six presidential elections, but we're barely staying even in the rest of the game; we're not developing the momentum we need."

Because the program Bush puts before Congress and the country inevitably will forecast the issues in the 1992 campaign, the forces who are vying to fill the policy vacuum have focused their efforts on what Bush will propose in January when he delivers his State of the Union address.

Junior staff people in the White House, led by presidential assistant James Pinkerton and encouraged by Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp, are pressing the president to seize the offensive from Capitol Hill Democrats by embracing an ambitious social agenda of his own. Their efforts to define what Pinkerton calls a "New Paradigm" for domestic policy have been publicly ridiculed by Darman and kept firmly in hand by Sununu.

The Kemp-Pinkerton caucus has strong support among younger congressional Republicans, who are frustrated by their lack of leverage on Capitol Hill. It is no accident that these same Republicans -- notably House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and a previous occupant of that post, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) -- led the revolt against the budget compromise forged by Darman and Sununu. Their opposition was based in part on principle, but equally important was their belief that if party differences were blurred by compromise on an issue as fundamental as taxing-and-spending priorities, the rationale for overturning the persistent Democratic majorities in Congress would disappear.

Sununu and Darman see their intra-party adversaries as intransigent ideologues, more interested in proving a theory than in running a government. Gingrich, Lott, Kemp and Pinkerton believe, equally fervently, that their adversaries have been so captured by the Washington power game they have abandoned all principle and cannot be relied on to provide any coherent message -- either for the Bush administration or the next Bush campaign.

How this will be resolved may not be clear until Bush submits his new budget in January. In a talk last week, Bush pleased the conservative activists pushing the "New Paradigm" programs by saying that present programs "are not working for the people . . . who want to pull themselves out of dependency and into a life of self-sufficiency in a safe, clean and drug-free community."

But those who know him well are nearly unanimous in guessing the president will seek to straddle the divisions rather than choosing one side over the other. In a comment that seemed to foreshadow that kind of Bush decision, Robert Teeter, the Michigan pollster and Bush confidant who will play a key role in the reelection campaign, argued that the constraints of the budget all but rule out anything very ambitious on the domestic side. "At the same time," he said, "it's healthy to have people looking for newer, better and more conservative ways to get at our domestic problems." The "Chinese restaurant menu" approach, as some have called it -- taking one proposal from Column A and another from Column B -- has served Bush well in his political career. But that kind of approach also has led to charges of inconsistency, as Bush has tacked this way and then that to stay in touch with the shifting center of Republican orthodoxy and political power. And it leads some Republicans to express fears that even if the measured tactical approach gets Bush reelected, it would not provide coattails for other Republicans in what many of them had hoped would be a watershed election year.

"I think we're looking at another 1972," one Republican operative said, referring to the year in which Richard Nixon won landslide reelection but Republicans made few House gains and actually lost two Senate seats. A White House insider offered the thought that the internal debate is only partially generational but more accurately reflects the tension between what he called "the Nixon-Ford heirs and the Reaganites" who have found places in Bush's carefully balanced administration.

In this view, the Nixon-Ford wing, including Darman and most Cabinet members, "are interested in some small reforms, but basically take an approach to governing that leads them to maintain the status quo and negotiate with Congress." The Reaganites, including Kemp and many younger White House staffers, want bigger and more radical changes and are prepared to challenge the Democratic Congress -- even if it makes the day-to-day work of governing more difficult. Sununu, who was originally identified as being a Reaganite, more and more has operated in alliance with Darman to keep the Nixon-Ford approach on top.

What both sides in the struggle are trying to decipher is how much the 1990 election shifted the ideological balance of power. It weakened the conservative base slightly on Capitol Hill, where most of the defeated House members and the lone senator to lose reelection came from conservative ranks. The party's southern flank was breached by the loss of governorships in Florida, Texas and Oklahoma -- although all three of those state remain as cornerstones for the Bush electoral-college coalition in 1992.

What was striking was the election of Republicans to replace Democratic governors in Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Massachusetts -- four states that virtually have to be part of a successful Democratic presidential candidate's electoral coalition. With the GOP retaining governorships in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin, the party's historical base in the Midwest now is in its best shape in years, and becomes a possible offset to the weakened Dixie stronghold.

Even more important is the emergence in this election of a group of moderate-progressive Republican governors who could conceivably help revive that declining and submerged spectrum of the party. They are led by Pete Wilson, shifting from the Senate to the California governorship, and they include Jim Edgar, the new governor in Illinois, George Voinovich in Ohio, Arne Carlson in Minnesota and William Weld in Massachusetts.

They are not identical in political history or outlook, but most are what former governor Alexander calls "activist populist governors," intent on using their offices to improve the economies and tackle the social problems in their states. Alexander, who served as a role model for that kind of approach in his eight years in Nashville, said that "because of their visibility, the governors are the ones who most likely will define the domestic agenda" -- and make that the president's national agenda. One political reason to think that Alexander may be proved right is that candidate Bush in 1988 relied on governors like Sununu (then in New Hampshire) and his counterparts in Florida, South Carolina, Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas and California as his principal political allies. "The governors will be his key allies again," predicts Republican pollster Linda Divall.

That means he will have to listen attentively to what they say in 1991 and 1992 -- and their message is likely to reinforce the Kemp-Gingrich-Pinkerton approach. The Brookings Institution's A. James Reichley, an authority on the Republican Party, said, "It's ironic, but these moderate and progressive governors may make Bush look with more favor on the Kemp approach. They are activists and almost all of them have, in their constituency, urban industrial cities with serious social problems. They are going to push the federal government to move in a more activist direction."

That kind of alliance would come as no surprise to Alexander, who decided five years ago to invite Gingrich to join his informal "Blackberry Farm" effort to define -- in activist terms -- a "second stage of the Reagan revolution."

As Gingrich said in an interview last week, the realization that unites those prodding Bush to be more creative in his domestic policy is "the understanding that we have run out of Reagan initiatives and we're just sitting here, with half the party in despair because the White House is saying that governing means raising taxes and compromising with the Democratic Congress."

"There's no unity in talking about unity," Gingrich said. "You only get unity by moving dynamically toward a clear goal."

If the policy debate now engaging Republicans leads to that clear goal, it could provide them with the momentum they need for a sweeping 1992 party victory. Meantime, it is furnishing proof that the Democrats have no monopoly on feuding.