DES MOINES -- For Stephen King, the Wisconsin Republican chairman, Monday night's Iowa caucuses cannot come too soon.

King has been watching Vice President Bush and Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (Kan.), the front-runners for his party's nomination, slam each other around all week in what he calls "the 12th-hour grappling" for advantage, and he does not like it one bit.

"This {1988} election is ours to lose," he said Friday, "and times like these cause me to think we're on the slippery slope to a black hole. In my state, we almost fumbled away a Senate seat last year with negative campaigning, and we have vowed not to allow it again. I think it's time they ended it."

King is far from alone in his assessment. Robert Naylor, the GOP chairman in California, said the Bush-Dole infighting "is bloodying both of them and making it a lot harder for their supporters to pull behind the other man. Maybe in a two-man race, they're ready to take some risks, but somebody ought to think about November."

Telephone interviews with a cross section of Republican leaders found some, including party Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., who said they are "not yet concerned" about damage to party unity from the unusually personal exchanges between the Bush and Dole camps that led to a tense face-to-face confrontation between the two men on the Senate floor last week.

But coming after a tumultuous Jan. 29 state convention battle in Michigan between supporters of Pat Robertson, the religious-right contender, and backers of Bush and Rep. Jack Kemp of New York, many saw a danger that the GOP might replace the Democrats as the party of feuding factions and quarrelsome leaders.

Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.), head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said "it's obviously a concern if it {the Bush-Dole feuding} continues, but they're both pros and I think they'll get it under control."

Vander Jagt said he was more worried about the aftereffects of the battling in Michigan, which led to a walkout by the Robertson delegates, a rump convention and the threat of credentials fights all the way to the August national convention. "The blue-collar, suburban Detroit vote Pat Robertson attracted was an important part of the Reagan coalition," he said, "and I am concerned how we are going to get them back. I don't blame them for being upset . . . . Our nominee will really have to make a special effort to reach out to them."

Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, a veteran of past Republican White House staffs and author of "The Presidential Campaign," also said the rifts over Robertson may be harder to heal than the Bush-Dole feuding. "You're playing with a very combustible mix," he said, referring to the effort to bring the religious right into the GOP coalition. "The Robertson supporters aren't politicians. They have a very high moral quotient, and that makes their demands much harder to compromise."

As for Bush and Dole, Hess said, "It's clear they don't like each other, and both of them know there's more of a chance for an early knockout" because so many of the Republican delegates will be chosen between now and mid-March. "It got overheated a little earlier this time," Hess said, "but there's not an awful lot for Republicans to worry about."

Fahrenkopf said he took consolation from the fact that "both Bob and George have sat in this chair {as national chairman} and they understand that party unity is important." He said that so long as polls show Dole the second choice for Bush supporters and vice versa, "I'm not going to worry. If that begins to erode, I'd be concerned."

Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (Minn.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said, "I can't imagine it {the feuding} going on very long," but added, "Republicans don't like that kind of backbiting. I hope it does stop, because the troops really don't like it."

But even if the fight is just a one-week story, it brought some solace to Democrats chafing under Republican taunts about their "seven dwarf" candidates.

"It's turned the so-called stature gap on its head," Democratic National Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. said. "The two leaders of the Republican establishment . . . are spitting in the gutter, debating such great issues as their pedigrees, their wealth, their candor and their character, while the Democrats are talking about education, jobs and the future of the country."

"Bush and Dole can go on as long as they like," Kirk said. "I'm enjoying it."