One Republican dubbed it "a White House meltdown" on domestic issues. Another official called it "public food fights" over the direction the administration should take. Whatever the characterization, the performance of President Bush's domestic policy staff over the last few weeks has many Republicans hoping for a long, quiet holiday vacation.

The tortured retreat on the Education Department's race-based scholarship regulations, the sudden dismissal of Education Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos and the abrupt departure of William J. Bennett as chairman-designate of the Republican National Committee have reinforced the impression that on domestic policy, the administration suffers from a lack of clear convictions by the president and political mismanagement by the White House staff.

The disarray has made it more difficult for Bush to pull together an already divided Republican Party and provides ammunition to Democratic critics who say he cannot deal with the economic and social problems now facing the country.

With his attention squarely focused on the events in the Persian Gulf, the president remains largely detached from the domestic policy debates that are raging inside and outside his administration. Acting as something of an absentee landlord, Bush has ceded considerable operational authority to White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, who now bears the brunt of criticism when anything goes wrong.

"The president has given Sununu a free hand on a lot of domestic and political issues while he . . . attends to the gulf," one official outside the White House said. "Some of them are going very bad and now the issue on Sununu is not just 'Is he too much the bad cop?' It's, 'Is he competent?' "

But others say the blame-Sununu-first school may oversimplify a deeper disarray on the domestic side that not only reflects differences within the White House staff and the Cabinet but the ideological divisions within the Republican Party as well.

"No one can figure out how much . . . to blame Sununu for or praise him for anymore," said one Republican operative with no love for the former New Hampshire governor. "His problem now is that he has become such a lightning rod for anger among Republicans and the press that he is blamed for everything, whether there is evidence he has done it or not."

The broader issue is whether Bush stands for anything on the domestic side, and part of the policy debate underway among Republicans is a battle to define what the leader of the party believes in.

"We're in a struggle to see how the president decides to define his domestic agenda for the third year of his term, which is critical because it sets the tone for his reelection," House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said.

But while many Republicans, particularly conservatives, argue for a bold domestic agenda in 1991, Bush is already signaling caution, an outgrowth of his preference to avoid confrontation with the Democrats and what some of his advisers see as the limitations on policy created by the five-year, $500 billion deficit-reduction package negotiated by the White House and congressional Democrats this year.

On Tuesday, Bush threw cold water on Republicans in and out of the administration who have been arguing that the White House should propose a substantial package of tax cuts both to stimulate the economy and stamp the party as pro-growth. Bush said that for political and budgetary reasons he may be reluctant to push hard for the centerpiece of such a package: a cut in capital gains taxes.

Many Republicans believe Bush will include capital gains in his budget for next year, but at issue now is whether he will make a real fight for it.

Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady has said he believes the White House can only lose politically by reopening the tax debate with the Democrats next year. Office of Management and Budget Director Richard G. Darman, meanwhile, has presented a case that the budget deal virtually prohibits an ambitious tax cut package because Bush would have to find the revenue elsewhere to pay for it.

Bush also showed he has no enthusiasm for an all-out assault on racial "quotas" by his retreat on the Education Department's race-based scholarship ruling.

That dispute was especially ill-timed in the view of many administration officials because it came amid another dispute among Republicans over whether to expand the debate on racial quotas to include government set-aside programs designed to benefit minorities.

Both Gingrich and Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) have begun to make the case that the party should consider advocating a "color-blind" approach to these programs, but Sununu and others in the White House appeared reluctant to go that far, even before the Education Department dispute blew up in their faces.

This tug-of-war is apparent inside the White House staff and the top levels of the administration, where all the party's factions are represented in microcosm and where a series of nasty arguments over the scholarship issue took place over the past week.

At the same time, Cabinet officials such as Brady, Housing Secretary Jack Kemp and Michael Boskin, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, were on television over the weekend sounding off on these issues and not always agreeing.

One senior official called the arguments "public food fights" and said, "If you think the party is divided, you ought to see the staff."

Coming on the heels of the Cavazos and Bennett episodes, the scholarship issue -- which caught the White House by surprise -- brought new criticism of Sununu's domestic operation, leading one Republican to describe it as "a White House in meltdown" on domestic issues.

"One again this administration says one thing, listens for who is screaming the loudest, tests the political winds and bends accordingly," said Paul Weyrich, a conservative activist.

William Lind, director of the Free Congress Center, said the scholarship "debacle illustrates the price the Bush administration pays for having no vision of America's future."

Bush's challenge on the domestic front appears particularly daunting. The budget fight left conservatives disaffected, forcing the White House to mend fences. The November elections, particularly at the gubernatorial level, reinvigorated the party's moderate wing, giving greater voice to a group of Republicans who have been largely shut out of the party's policy debate since Ronald Reagan's election as president in 1980.

But even if Bush had the stomach for a fight with the Democrats, many Republicans believe his White House couldn't carry it off. These Republicans argue that Sununu's and Darman's handling of the budget debate -- regardless of the policies ultimately adopted -- cost the president and the party so much politically that it is risky to try again.

Gramm, the Texas conservative, said Bush and the Republicans should have no fear of confronting the Democrats next year. "In the last debate the president was in a position where he had two choices, both of them regrettable," Gramm said. "He faced fiscal gridlock or he could compromise with the Democrats. I don't see us being in either position this {coming} year."

But Gingrich, who is barely on speaking terms with Sununu, said publicly what others in and out of the administration say privately. "It's fair to say the White House badly needs a strategic communication system and a grass-roots system" of activists, he said. "Without that they won't manage the defense against the Democratic assault . . . . "