As Republican and Democratic strategists begin to lay the early groundwork for the 1992 presidential elections, both sides are looking with wary interest at the issue of workplace quotas and other forms of minority preferences.

A number of Republicans see racially loaded conflicts over hiring, promotions and college admissions as offering an ideal vehicle to exploit conflicts within the Democrats' biracial alliance and to reinforce the past success of Ronald Reagan in drawing working- and lower-middle-class whites into the Republican coalition.

Charles Black, who has been serving as volunteer spokesman for the Republican National Committee, contends the issue offers the potential of polarizing the electorate along lines highly favorable to the GOP. "It's a good issue for us, because it establishes once again that the Democrats have an elitist view of things," Black said.

President Bush appeared to signal support for Republican use of the quota issue last fall, when he vetoed civil rights legislation because he said it would lead to workplace quotas in the private sector.

Democrats envision a backlash in their direction if Republicans are seen as seeking to profit from the wounds inflicted in the national struggle to achieve racial equality. "The issue {of quotas} is not only explosive, it's dangerous," said Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg.

Neither party is yet certain if the quota issue is a political gold mine or a booby trap. A number of Republican strategists acknowledge privately that the adoption of anti-quota themes as a 1992 campaign centerpiece could halt in its tracks the GOP drive to regain support among blacks, and potentially could establish a damaging link between Bush and 1990 Republican senatorial candidate David Duke, the former Louisiana Ku Klux Klan leader who recently declared his candidacy for governor this fall.

Six weeks after his civil rights veto, Bush was forced to declare his belief in affirmative action to quell a growing controversy over an Education Department ruling restricting minority scholarships as discriminatory. That move angered many conservatives who had cheered the veto.

"George Bush has learned how volatile this issue is," Greenberg said.

Yet for many worried Democrats the quota issue touches on a far broader Democratic liability -- the identification of the party by many whites as favoring government spending and regulation on behalf of minorities, gay people, criminal defendants and welfare recipients.

Democratic consultant Frank Greer said Republicans have had significant success in the past "appealing to people's fears of crime, fear of blacks taking your jobs, and fear of homosexuals somehow corrupting your children. . . . The Democrats were portrayed as only caring about the disadvantaged, the poor. And that translated into black."

The key to the attractiveness of quotas as a campaign issue, and to the volatility of the issue, lies in Americans' often conflicting concepts of basic fairness.

Following passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it was left to lawyers, legislators, regulators and judges to define for the nation the meaning of abstract terms like fairness and equality -- as well as the scope of liability for past and present discrimination. As those definitions ran into the struggle for jobs, promotions and college admissions, blacks and whites were placed in headlong competition over basic resources.

Ron Shogren, a white police patrolman in Chicago, is one American who believes he knows what unfairness is. "I scored 563rd" on the exam to make sergeant, Shogren said. "I was 17 out from being made when they tore the list down. But they had gone down to number 2,000 to promote someone who was a minority. Do I think it's fair? Certainly not." Kenneth Krupowicz, another white Chicago policeman who has gone to court to complain of reverse discrimination, said, "I didn't own slaves, and I shouldn't be penalized for what happened hundreds of years ago."

In contrast, Carl Cook -- a beneficiary of an affirmative action program that helped him reach the rank of lieutenant in the once all-white fire department in Birmingham, a city that is now 55 percent black -- has a different definition of fairness.

"Say your father robs a bank, takes the money and buys his daughter a Mercedes, and then buys his son a Porsche and his wife a home in the high-rent district," Cook said. "Then they discover he has embezzled the money. He has to give the cars and house back. And the family starts to cry: 'We didn't do anything.' The same thing applies to what the whites have to say. The fact is, sometimes you have to pay up. If a wrong has been committed, you have to right that wrong."

The power of the quota issue to influence elections is not a recent phenomenon. Over the years, Republican and Democratic party platforms have taken opposing stands on affirmative action.

In the 1972 election, President Richard M. Nixon, whose administration had three years earlier successfully initiated many of the guidelines calling for "goals and timetables" in minority hiring by the construction industry, sought to capitalize on white opposition to racial preferences. "When young people apply for jobs," Nixon declared on the campaign trail, "and find the door closed because they don't fit into some numerical quota, despite their ability, and they object, I do not think it is right to condemn those young people as insensitive or even racist."

Throughout the Reagan administration, the Justice Department repeatedly raised the issue of reverse discrimination. In 1981, Civil Rights Division head William Bradford Reynolds defined the stand of Reagan conservatives: "We no longer will insist upon or in any respect support the use of quotas or any other numerical or statistical formulae designed to provide to non-victims of discrimination preferential treatment based on race, sex, national origin or religion."

In its 1984 platform, the Democratic Party affirmed the "use of affirmative action, goals, timetables and other verifiable measures to overturn historic patterns and historic burdens of discrimination," and virtually repeated the same language in 1988.

The GOP, in contrast, has sought to use the most controversial elements of affirmative action, quotas and racial preferences to build a claim that the Republican Party supports equal opportunity. "We will resist efforts to replace equal rights with discriminatory quota systems and preferential treatment," the party's 1988 platform declared.

In the 1990 elections, quotas were used as driving issues in two key GOP victories, the defeat of black Senate challenger Harvey Gantt by Sen. Jesse Helms in North Carolina and the defeat of Dianne Feinstein in the California governor's race by then-Sen. Pete Wilson. The most controversial Helms ad showed a white man's hands crumpling a job rejection slip as the announcer denounced racial quotas, linking them to Gantt.

Quotas and racial preferences are part of a larger collection of social issues that have been used with varying, but repeated, success to undermine the Democatic Party since 1966.

They include: crime on the streets, prompted in part by widespread outbreaks of urban rioting from 1965 to 1968; the controversy over busing that dominated the first half of the 1970s; Reagan's campaign evocation of a "welfare queen" riding a Cadillac while defrauding the welfare system and his portrayal of men and women in grocery lines buying T-bone steaks with food stamps while regular workers bought hamburgers; and, most recently, Bush's use of the rape committed by convicted murderer Willie Horton while on furlough from the Massachusetts prison system.

These issues have become powerful weapons in breaking up the Democrats' lower-income biracial coalition and in undermining Democratic claims to be the party of fairness.

In a 1985 study of working-class suburban white voters near Detroit, The Analysis Group, a Democratic firm, found that "conventional Democratic themes, like opportunity and fairness, are now invested with all the cynicism and racism that have come to characterize these {focus group} sessions. . . . On hearing the term 'fairness,' these voters recall, on the one hand, 'racial minorities' or 'some blacks kicking up a storm' and, on the other hand, 'only politics' or politicians who are 'lying.' It never occurred to these voters that the Democrats were referring to the middle class."

According to Democrat Ed Reilly, who conducted focus groups among defecting white Democrats last year, there is a highly receptive audience for Republican themes stressing racial issues. "The affirmative action stuff, the sense of substantial programs from the government all going to people 'other than myself,' to state it politely, is a very prevalent theme with Democrats around the country, especially those who are more culturally conservative, Northeast Catholics and southern white males."

In a report to organization Democrats for the '90s, Reilly wrote that in any "discussion of Democrats, spending and social welfare programs, there is no way to skirt the issue of race. Though white respondents employ euphemisms and coded languange, they clearly believe that 'those people who don't work' tend to be members of minority communities."

Reflecting the degree of conflict between the races, Reilly said many "black respondents feel that the country and the Democratic Party are increasingly racist and that the party cares little for their interests and needs."

Michael Caccitolo, a former Chicago policeman who is now Republican committeeman in the 23rd Ward, said affirmative action policies "strike at the fundamental constitutional issue that everyone is granted equal protection under the law. How do you have it both ways? The government is not only saying some are more equal than others, but we are going to tell {you} how many."

Yet John Lewis, a former civil rights leader and now Democratic congressman from Atlanta, argued: "We must continue to move toward a truly interracial society. We must use every available instrument in government and in the private sector in order to do what we must to make up for some of the wrongs of the past. . . . Sometimes we have to all pay a little price, we have to be part of the solution, and in some instances it can be a little painful, in the workplace or in a college, or wherever."

Democratic pollster Greenberg, who has specialized in exploring the forces at work in the fracturing of Democratic loyalty, noted that "part of the issue is who people view as 'deserving.' In economic terms, people who work or want to work are seen as deserving. When people think about kids going to college, they want to give them a break. This isn't a welfare mother, this is someone who is trying to get ahead.

"People do have good instincts," Greenberg said. "If you cross the line, you get burned. There are certain norms in the race area which the public in general believes."

There are some Republican dissenters in the assessment of the attractiveness of the use of the quota issue. Two new Republican governors, George V. Voinovich of Ohio and Jim Edgar of Illinois, both of whom supported the vetoed Civil Rights Act of 1990, did far better than most Republicans among black voters.

But Republican strategists like pollster Robert M. Teeter, who is expected, along with Black, to play a central role in Bush's reelection campaign, believes that on balance with key voting groups the quota issue works in the Republicans' favor.

"I have often argued that one central characteristic of the baby boom voters is that they are anti-special privilege, no matter whether that is quotas or tax breaks for big companies or wealthy people," Teeter said. "In that sense, being opposed to quotas is a good idea and good politics."