DES MOINES, JUNE 25 -- It's official. The Republicans have a front-runner, sort of, for the party's 1996 presidential nomination and the chance to challenge President Clinton.

This news was announced late Friday by Richard Schwarm, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party. By then, most of the approximate 1,500 people who had paid $25 to attend a fund-raiser here had left the Des Moines Convention Center, apparently not interested in the results of the first straw poll on GOP presidential hopefuls in the state that will kick off the 1996 campaign in precinct caucuses 21 months from now.

Before the results were announced, Iowa Republicans heard speeches from seven of their party's national figures and potential presidential contenders, all of whom assailed Clinton, particularly on foreign policy and his health reform plan.

But while the speakers and their audience agreed on Clinton's faults, the snapshot of the GOP the event provided also revealed internal divisions over the role and influence of conservative religious activists.

Warnings about the growing influence of Christian conservatives were delivered indirectly by former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean and more bluntly by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). Kean cautioned that by taking inflexible positions on abortion, gay and women's rights, Republicans "may relegate ourselves to the sideline" in national politics.

Specter, whose sole purpose in accepting an invitation to speak here appeared to be to establish himself as a leading critic of the religious right, told the audience that he was "going to say some things tonight that some, perhaps many, in this hall won't want to hear." He went on to describe the Texas convention, which was dominated by religious activists, as "wrong philosophically, factually and pragmatically" and to urge the GOP to drop its "anti-choice" platform plank on abortion.

"In politics, the power to divide is the power to destroy," he said.

These warnings, however, were far from the dominant theme for an audience of party activists in a state where supporters of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition now hold a majority on the GOP central committee.

Three Republicans who are considering a run for president in 1996 went out of their way to attack Democrats attempting to make the growing influence of fundamentalist Christians in the GOP a national political issue.

Deploring "Christian bashing," political commentator Patrick J. Buchanan vowed that Republicans "are not going to walk away from our beliefs" or abandon "those unborn children whose silent screams say only one thing -- stand by me." Endorsing proposals to allow prayer in public schools, former defense secretary Richard B. Cheney said it was "outrageous for the Democrats to suggest that religion of any kind is a disqualification to participate in our political process." Texas Sen. Phil Gramm said he was "deeply offended" by the Democrats' assault.

Former education secretary and Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander and former labor secretary Lynn Martin steered clear of the religion issue. In a rambling speech, Martin said Republicans "have to convince people they care about what happens in their house and not just in the White House"; Alexander said the GOP will make a mistake if it simply attacks Clinton. The country is "hungry for us to say what we are for," he said.

All of this was received politely by Iowa Republicans, who welcomed a fleeting return to the spotlight. Accustomed to being the subject of intense interest every four years, this state was largely bypassed during the 1992 presidential primaries because there was no contest in the GOP and the Democratic field included a favorite son, Sen. Tom Harkin.

But this first, unofficial event of the 1996 campaign did little to clarify the strength of Republican contenders. The straw poll ballot included 23 names, only one of whom -- Wyoming Sen. Alan K. Simpson -- failed to receive a single vote. "None of the Above" got eight votes.

After the votes were counted, Gramm strode back into the nearly deserted Convention Center to proclaim "a triumph." He noted with satisfaction that his 200 votes put him ahead not only of Cheney (130 votes) and Buchanan (69 votes), but also former housing and urban development secretary Jack Kemp (156 votes) and former vice president Dan Quayle (81 votes).

But Gramm neglected to point out that he finished third, five votes behind Alexander and 156 votes behind the winner. To no one's surprise, that was Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole of neighboring Kansas, whose only presence at the event was on two television sets that played an old interview. Dole won the Iowa caucuses in 1988, the year that the eventual GOP nominee was the third-place finisher here, George Bush.