House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) charged yesterday that President Bush and other Republican strategists are using opposition to civil rights legislation "to divide white working people from black working people, and thereby distract them from their common interests."

Setting the stage for the renewed fight over civil rights legislation expected when a new Congress convenes next month, Gephardt dismissed Bush's contention when he vetoed the bill in October that it would force businesses to impose racial quotas. And he criticized Republicans who he charged are planning to use quotas as a polarizing issue in the 1992 elections:

"The ideologues on the right are following a new trail of racial resentment and recrimination blazed by {state representative} David Duke {R-La.}, then trod successfully by {Sen.} Jesse Helms {R-N.C.}, and now given a tarnished patina of intellectual respectability by {Republican National Committee chairman-designate} William Bennett."

Charles Black, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, dismissed the charges as "nonsense. They are hitting below the belt in trying to rope David Duke, a former Democrat, into this equation. There is a legitimate difference between the president and the liberal Democrats and what ought to be in this {civil rights} bill. If they try to convert it into a quota bill again, he will oppose it."

Gephardt made his comments in a speech setting forth his "personal thoughts and observations" before the start of the 102nd Congress that laid out the preliminary outline of a domestic policy agenda running the gamut from worker training to tax cuts for the middle class.

"The great experiment in supply side theory has failed, our economic leadership has faltered and working family incomes have fallen," Gephardt said at the Center on National Policy, referring to the past decade of Republican control of the White House.

In an interview after the speech, Gephardt, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 and may run again in 1992, said the inability of Republicans "to argue the merits of their economic ideas" as the nation moves toward likely recession is a major factor behind what he called a GOP strategy to "divide America, pitting black against white."

Contrasting what he called a Democratic "trickle-up theory" of tax policy with Republican "trickle-down theory," Gephardt invoked an elaborate image of the working class shoppers at Wal-Mart stores across the country and Sam Walton, the chain's billionaire owner:

"Republicans tell {the Wal-Mart shopper} that a tax cut for Sam Walton will trickle down and down and down, until finally, one day, it reaches the parking lot of the Wal-Mart in Festus. Democrats say, 'Get real.' If you want to help the middle class, cut out the middle man. Give them the tax cut . . . . And you know what? Sam Walton will actually end up even richer."

Noting that former budget director David A. Stockman had described tax cuts for the rich as the real "Trojan Horse" goal of the 1981 tax bill, Gephardt ridiculed contemporary Republican "empowerment" strategists who are exploring methods of attempting to help the poor through tax incentives, public housing tenant ownership, public school choice plans and other programs. These strategies, known in some quarters as the "New Paradigm," may "be nothing more than a Trojan polo pony, providing attractive cover for yet another assault on working families," he said.

Gephardt described a number of Democratic plans to use a version of market incentives to achieve social goals. This included payments to states that provide better child care and nutrition programs, and special "earn for learn" bonuses to schools where the math and science scores reach high levels.