Vice President Bush, with $9 million in the bank and a restrained pattern of spending, is far better prepared financially to wage a long campaign for the Republican presidential nomination than his competitors, new spending reports indicate.

The remaining Republican candidates are either in debt or spending at such a fast pace that they may be unable to fund later primary battles because of the overall $23 million federal limit on the amount a candidate can spend in the primary season if he or she accepts federal funds.

The financial picture of the campaigns is drawn from the latest reports of spending through Jan. 31 filed at the Federal Election Commission. They show that before a vote was cast in Iowa or New Hampshire, former television evangelist Pat Robertson had spent $17.6 million -- more than three-fourths of the national limit.

Robertson also used $4.3 million of the additional $4.6 million candidates can spend on fund-raising.

Robertson has accepted $6.5 million in matching funds and borrowed $5.5 million last month, using the matching funds as collateral. Marion Edwyn Harrison, Robertson's campaign lawyer, said yesterday that the campaign has kept the matching funds in a separate account and has not decided yet whether to spend the money, or try to give it back. If it is returned, the campaign might argue it does not have to abide by the national limits.

Besides the legal issues involved, he said, "there's also a numbers-crunching question. That means how much the campaign thinks it can raise and how much it thinks it needs to raise" if matching funds are not used.

Because of the heavy borrowing, and $5.2 million in operating expenditures, Robertson had more debt than cash in the bank at the end of January.

Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) spent $4 million last month, bringing his total allocable spending to $13.4 million, almost 60 percent of the limit. He had about $3.5 million in the bank, after bills are subtracted.

Dale Tate, a Dole spokeswoman, said the campaign is completing a heavy spending cycle. "We have tapered off and will be tapering off. We're well aware of how the money is being spent and that the campaign will be a long haul."

Bush spent less than $3 million in January. His allocable spending thus totaled $10.7 million, less than half of the $23 million national limit. He also had more than $9 million in the bank.

If the Republican battle continues into spring, all surviving campaigns could face spending limits problems. But Bush, if his pattern of conserving funds for later fights holds, would be in relatively better shape.

Rich Bond, Bush's deputy campaign manager, cited the financial score card as one of the strengths of the Bush campaign. He said it is "quite appropriate" to have spent about half the allowable funds "at this delegate crossroads. And the fact that we have tight financial management with a time line bodes well for us."

A more disinterested observer, Michael S. Berman, who was campaign treasurer for Walter Mondale in 1984, agreed with Bond's analysis. "Bush has enormous resources and can still have money in the bank after Super Tuesday," he said.

Berman added that he doubts Robertson will be able to give the matching funds back even if he wants to spend more than the national limit because he has had the use of the funds by borrowing against them.

He also noted that Robertson is raising much of his funds through direct mail, an expensive technique whose costs will have to come out of the campaign's operating budget once the $4.6 million fund-raising limit is reached.

Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), the fourth GOP contender, spent nearly $3 million last month. His total reached $12.8 million, about 55 percent of the limit. Like Robertson, Kemp is in debt, with $1.3 million in debts and only $446,000 in the bank.

None of the Democratic candidates has raised or spent as much as the Republicans. Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis had spent the most, $7.8 million, about 34 percent of the limit.

He ended January with $3.5 million in the bank after subtracting amounts owed to vendors. Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), who had been hoarding his money for the South, had nearly $2 million in the bank; former senator Gary Hart, about $600,000. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) and Sen. Paul Simon (Ill.) had more debts than money in the bank. Jesse L. Jackson's report had not yet been filed.

In other campaign news:Dukakis arrived in South Dakota on the eve of its primary today to complain bitterly that Gephardt, the Democrat who is his main competition there, has distorted Dukakis' record in a new ad that began running over the weekend.

The Gephardt ad, part of a $60,000 South Dakota advertising blitz in the week since New Hampshire, claims that while Gephardt has a trade policy, Dukakis has none; that while Gephardt has sponsored farm legislation, Dukakis' solution is that farmers in trouble try new crops such as blueberries and Belgian endive; and that while Gephardt is a tax cutter, Dukakis is a tax raiser.

"Having watched the Republicans bash themselves over the head . . . behaving like children, I hoped the Democrats wouldn't do the same," Dukakis said yesterday. "I want people to know my record. I don't want it distorted by candidates so desperate and frantic that they turn to negative advertising."

Gephardt, who has had to fend off his share of "flip-flop" accusations in the past month, yesterday sought to turn the tables on one of his rivals, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (Tenn.).

The Gephardt campaign released a "fact sheet" detailing 12 Gore "flip-flops" on issues ranging from abortion to the oil import fee to the MX missile. Gore, asked about several apparent shifts of position during a news conference in which he was endorsed by Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.), denied a number of the specific allegations and said there was a difference between "changing your mind and having a wholesale" shift on "dozens of dozens" of issues over the years -- which he said Gephardt had done.

Meanwhile, when Heflin was asked whether he had any second thoughts about endorsing a candidate for president whose ratings from various interest groups show him to be a liberal, Heflin said: "I hope I can educate him a little bit . . . . I've got to work on him a little more to bring him to the center."

On the Republican side, the dean of Senate Republicans, Strom Thurmond (S.C.), yesterday endorsed Dole in advance of his state's hotly contested primary March 5, three days before Super Tuesday.

Thurmond's announcement was a surprise to the Bush forces, who say they had received assurances from him as recently as last week that he would remain neutral, according to Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater, a one-time Thurmond protege, and South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell, who is supporting Bush. Thurmond called Dole the "most effective conservative candidate to continue the ideals of the Reagan agenda."

The Dole campaign also hired a media consulting firm, Murphy and Castellanos Inc., to replace Don Ringe.

Simon, who once said he'd drop out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination if he does not come out of Minnesota or South Dakota with a victory, said yesterday he does not expect to carry either state but plans to fight on anyway.

In Minnesota, where 78 Democratic delegates are at stake, Dukakis is favored by polls to win on the Democratic side today; in South Dakota, where 15 delegates are at stake, Gephardt and Dukakis are in a close race for first.

On the Republican side, Dole is favored in South Dakota, after Bush declined, in effect, to run a campaign. In Minnesota, Robertson and Kemp are conducting the major battle for the 31 GOP delegates to be selected in caucuses today.Staff writers Maralee Schwartz, Paul Taylor and Helen Dewar contributed to this report.