SANTA FE, N.M. -- The three leading Republican contenders for president addressed an elite group of Republican stalwarts last week and emphasized what might seem to be a fundamental GOP lesson: Republicans do not raise taxes.

But when Vice President Bush, Sen. Robert J. Dole (Kan.) and Rep. Jack Kemp (N.Y.) delivered their familiar anti-tax-increase sermons at the Republican Governors Association meeting here, they were not exactly preaching to the choir.

Among the 22 GOP governors present, nearly half have presided over tax increases in their states. What's more, most of the chief executives said they were proud of the tax packages they championed.

"We did what had to be done for the good of the state," said New Mexico Gov. Garrey Carruthers, who pushed hard for passage of

increased gasoline taxes and

auto registration fees earlier this year, during his first months in office.

"We reached a point where you had to discard all the rhetoric and take some action," echoed Texas Gov. Bill Clements, who pushed through a $5.7 billion tax hike this year, the largest tax increase in the history of the Lone Star State. "And if anybody says, 'Well, Republicans don't do that,' I tell 'em, 'Look, somebody had to do it in Texas this year.' "

The fairly sharp mismatch here between what the presidential candidates preached and what the governors have practiced indicates that the no-tax-hike stance may not be the central element of Republicanism that the GOP presidential candidates have been suggesting on the stump this year. At the state level, at least, Republicans can and do promote higher taxes without being branded traitors to their party's basic principles.

"Where we are, things look different -- even for Republicans," said Delaware Gov. Michael N. Castle. Castle said he has worked for some tax-rate decreases in his state but has then pushed for offsetting increases in the gasoline tax.

"You can't just go around making speeches against {increasing} taxes when you have a demand for

services and a constitutional mandate to balance your budget," he said.

Among other sitting GOP governors who have raised state taxes during their terms are Bob Martinez of Florida, Norman H. Bangerter of Utah, Henry Bellmon of Oklahoma and Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey. In interviews here, most of them forcefully rejected the notion that their tax hikes went against the grain of national Republicanism.

Some of the governors ran into heavy political flak for pushing tax increases; Clements and Martinez are still struggling to overcome the fallout from this year's tax hikes. But others have escaped largely unscathed.

Carruthers received a good deal of editorial and political praise in New Mexico for the tax hike he backed this year. Bangerter fell sharply in the polls after he pushed for higher taxes two years ago, but has since regained most of the lost ground.

Bellmon said he has been surprised by the widespread positive reaction to the $300 million tax increase he endorsed. "I thought it would hurt," he said. "But what I'm getting is a lot of support for it from the business community, which is pretty well Republican, and hardly anyone coming up to me to criticize that tax increase."

Bellmon says he understands, nonetheless, why the party's presidential candidates are generally adamant in their opposition to new taxes at the federal level.

"The voters are probably more opposed to federal taxes," Bellmon said. "With our new taxes, the voters see results -- in education, or roads, or whatever the purpose is. People are not opposed to paying for government services they want when they can see results. The problem with federal taxes is you don't see the results -- not when it goes into the military or paying {interest} on the debt."

Another factor contributing to Republican governors' tax increases is a governmental fact of life facing state chief excecutives from both parties: The ballooning federal deficit has forced the states to pick up much of the funding for new governmental initiatives.

"What we've seen during the Reagan years is an important change in the allocation of duties and resources between federal and state government," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), a federal budget expert. "With some exceptions, Washington just isn't paying for new domestic programs anymore."

The Republican governors say the shifting burden means a shift in the meaning of responsible state government. And they sharply deny that raising taxes to finance key services runs contrary to Republican ideals.

Carruthers, for example, has endorsed Bush for the GOP presidential nomination in 1988, but that did not prevent the New Mexico governor from responding sharply to Bush's suggestion here that opposition to tax increases is a fundamental part of Republican philosophy. "Actually," Carruthers snapped, "fundamental Republican philosophy is to get revenues higher than costs."