The prospective candidates for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination are suddenly consumed by a $30 million question: Who can raise it and who can't?

The answer is likely to determine the shape of the field that in a matter of months will be in full pursuit of the 1996 nomination and, according to a number of Republican strategists, will directly affect who wins the prize.

A radically altered primary season calendar -- highlighted by the shift in California's primary from June to late March -- has created a virtual national primary for the nomination -- the first in history. The prospective candidates quickly have come to terms with the consequences.

"The change in the date of the California primary is the only thing anyone knows about, and so it is the only thing that anyone is thinking about," said Republican former representative Vin Weber. "So the thinking is about how to raise {the needed money} before the first primary."

Last year, prospective candidates used early trips to New Hampshire and Iowa to signal their interest in running. This year, there is much more concentration on issues of money than geography.

Former secretary of state James A. Baker III has several friends taking soundings around the country about whether he could raise the table stakes needed to run -- with help provided by Robert A. Mosbacher, George Bush's commerce secretary and chief fund-raiser.

Former defense secretary Richard B. Cheney is doing the same, reportedly with advice from Drew Lewis, who was transportation secretary in the Reagan administration and now is chairman of Union Pacific Corp.

Former housing secretary Jack Kemp used a fund-raising event built around Super Bowl XXVIII as a test run for building a financial network, while Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) has used his position as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee to put him in touch with top Republican contributors from around the country.

Four years ago, presidential candidates who accepted federal matching funds were allowed to raise and spend $33 million (including $6 million for fund-raising expenses and compliance) during the nomination season.

That will increase by several million dollars for 1996, and Republican strategists believe $20 million to $30 million of that will have to be raised before the primaries begin.

"Today there's not the time to win New Hampshire and have three to four weeks to percolate around," said one Republican operative.

The enormous financial requirements clearly favor those who already have the capacity to raise big money. "It definitely gives an advantage to the better-known people and the people who have run before," said Charlie Black, a Republican strategist.

Various Republican strategists -- and some of the potential candidates -- assume that Kemp and Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) definitely can raise what's needed, and that Gramm, Cheney and Baker probably can too. And, if he wins reelection this year, the same is likely for California Gov. Pete Wilson because of his home-state base.

Republicans differ over whether former vice president Dan Quayle, who is looking seriously at running, can raise enough money.

"He raised a ton of money while vice president for candidates and state parties," one Republican operative said. "He's got a lot of chits out there."

But another Republican was more pessimistic. "He's very popular with grass-roots conservatives, who tend to be direct mail and telephone givers," this Republican said. "I would think he'd get less $1,000 donations and more from direct mail. He should have started already."

Less well-known candidates, such as former Tennessee governor and education secretary Lamar Alexander, South Carolina Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. and former education secretary William J. Bennett, likely would have trouble either raising the money or taking maximum advantage of it.

"The ability to raise money and not have to use it to buy name identification is the key to winning in 1996," one Republican strategist predicted. "Can {Massachusetts Gov.} Bill Weld raise money in Massachusetts and around the country? Yes. But Weld has to use a lot of it to buy name identification. So does Lamar Alexander or Carroll Campbell."

Alexander said he is undaunted by the prospect of having to raise so much money so quickly. "My original assumption going in was that to compete, someone would need to have $8 {million} to $10 million by the end of '95 and $22 million through California," he said.

He added that the key to raising money once the primaries begin is the same as it always has been. "Anyone who comes out of Iowa and New Hampshire one, two or three will be able to raise a lot more money after the New Hampshire primary," he said.

But the history of underfunded candidates is not encouraging to those contemplating a 1996 campaign. In each of the last three elections, the candidate who had raised the most money by the end of the year preceding the election won his party's nomination, from Walter F. Mondale in 1984 to George Bush and Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 to Bill Clinton in 1992. (One exception came in 1980, when former Texas governor John B. Connally outraised Ronald Reagan in 1979 but ended up winning only one Republican delegate.)

Clinton actually raised only $3.3 million by the end of 1991 -- the smallest sum of any eventual winner during those four elections -- but all Democrats got a late start on 1992.

The entire Democratic field had raised just $10.1 million by Dec. 31, 1991. That was less than Bush, Dole and conservative broadcaster Pat Robertson had raised at a similar stage in the 1988 campaign, and only $200,000 more than Kemp had raised by then.

But 1992 was an exception because many of the best-known Democrats ducked the race and the rest of the field did not get started until the fall of 1991. Republicans assume that will be fatal this time, and those considering a candidacy have told their aides that all of 1995 will have to be devoted to raising money.

Most have established political action committees to help fund their travels this year, but the PACs also will allow Republican potential candidates to develop networks of donors who are willing to help raise millions next year.

"What people don't appreciate is how difficult it is to raise $22 {million} to $24 million at $1,000 a crack," said one GOP strategist. "The $1,000 {givers} think Cheney is a great guy, but are there enough of those guys to raise {what is required}? Can Baker pull enough of a fund-raising network to raise the money? It's difficult."

Part of the guessing game now underway is whether prospective candidates will be trying to raise money from the same general pool of contributors. Gramm and Baker, for example, both have Texas roots, although each also has national contacts. Cheney and Baker, by dint of their closeness during the Bush administration, might find themselves competing for some of the same money.

Cheney reportedly has some Midwestern support, and some Republicans believe he will appeal to boardroom executives. Baker, said one Republican, will appeal to entrepreneurs.

Gramm is a one-man band of fund-raising. He already has $7 million on hand in two different Senate campaign accounts, much of which he likely would transfer to a presidential campaign.

Dole is the leading fund-raiser on the Republican Party circuit these days, and many Republicans think he could quickly translate that appeal to another presidential campaign.

Kemp appears to be developing a cadre of younger fund-raisers, including Peter Terpeluk Jr., who was a top fund-raiser for Bush in 1992 and helped Kemp with his Super Bowl fund-raising earlier this year. (That money will be used for Kemp's political action committee this year.)

Kemp, a former professional football player, also is using the star quality of fellow athletes to help him draw contributions. "At the Super Bowl luncheon, when {former National Football League stars} Roger Staubach, Joe Namath and John Mackey walked in, everyone got excited," one Kemp adviser said.