Republican presidential candidates do not necessarily read polls in the same way that ordinary voters do.

Former vice president Dan Quayle won the support of only 9 percent of those surveyed in a recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, trailing Texas Gov. George W. Bush by 37 percentage points and Elizabeth Dole by 5, but he was so pleased with the result that he put out a press release declaring: "QUAYLE TOP CONSERVATIVE IN LATEST GALLUP POLL."

There is a logic to Quayle's elation: the belief in some Republican circles that GOP presidential primary fights are really two separate contests. The first is to become the choice of the centrist wing of the party, the other to be the candidate of the right. According to this analysis, known as the "two-primary theory," the contest for the nomination is almost sure to boil down to a battle between the mainstream candidate and the conservative candidate.

"One of them is for the party establishment, party favorite nominee, in which you've got Mrs. Dole and Mr. Bush and Lamar Alexander and John McCain," conservative commentator and candidate Patrick J. Buchanan recently said on CNBC. "The other is, if you will, for the conservative-populistoutsider-challenger. It always comes down to that."

The two-primary theory is fundamental to the strategies of Buchanan, Quayle and Gary Bauer. But there are strong signs that it will fall apart during the 2000 nomination process, seriously threatening the viability of those staking out the right.

The most damaging development for the Republican right is the muting of the abortion issue. Key antiabortion leaders of such groups as the Christian Coalition and National Right to Life acknowledge that prospects of passing an antiabortion constitutional amendment are virtually nil in the immediate future.

The result has been to make it much more difficult for conservatives to turn abortion into a litmus test to raise doubts about their mainstream competitors, even though some are trying to do that against Bush.

The second factor undermining the two-primary theory is the difficulty facing the conservative candidates as they try to lay exclusive claim to the GOP's right wing. There are at least five candidates jousting to be the pro-gun, antiabortion, anti-tax, pro-family values candidate: Bauer, Buchanan, Quayle, Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes and Alan Keyes. These candidates have been scooping up leaders and staff from the Christian Coalition and antiabortion groups, but the centrist candidates -- especially Bush and Dole -- have been getting their share too.

"It's very muddy. You may very well have Pat Robertson [head of the Christian Coalition] coming out for Bush," said Kayne Robinson, chairman of the Iowa GOP. "This is a very diffused deal, the whole Christian Coalition thing in Iowa. If you look at their board of directors, they are spread out among all these campaigns."

The two-primary theory first gained currency after Ronald Reagan's long conservative march over three elections against establishment figures such as Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford and George Bush. Buchanan's success in twice achieving the status of the last man standing against the mainstream candidate -- President Bush in 1992, Robert J. Dole in 1996 -- appeared to affirm the theory.

In the 2000 election season, an early attempt by conservative mastermind Paul Weyrich to line up the right behind a single candidate collapsed when the then-favorite, Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), abruptly decided not to run.

The unprecedented "front-loading" of the primaries and caucuses has become another factor working to undermine those basing their candidacies on the two-primary theory. Even if a conservative candidate does emerge after the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, massive financial hurdles remain in trying to be competitive in the upcoming primaries in New York, Florida, California and most of the megastates in the Midwest.

It is the huge cost of running in the primaries that has given Forbes more credibility this year than his low showing in the polls might suggest. Forbes, heir to a fortune, is the one conservative assured of having enough cash to survive the pile-up of contests in March 2000. Don Devine, a Forbes adviser, said "front-loading puts such a premium on money that it's unbelievable. As others have more and more trouble raising money, it will look more and more like it's Bush or Forbes."

Forbes's financial viability has fundamentally changed the politics of the right. He, however, is not a "movement" conservative in the same way that Buchanan, Bauer and Quayle are. If he emerges as the conservative challenger, it would result less from long-term conservative credentials than from his effective use of his financial resources to gain rapid credibility on the right.

Pollster Linda DiVall argues that her candidate, Elizabeth Dole, is fundamentally changing the ground rules from another ideological direction altogether, making the two-primary theory obsolete. If she succeeds, DiVall says, Dole would "expand the universe" of Republican voters to include many suburban women and independents who in other times would not participate in the contests.

Former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, in turn, makes the case that the two-primary theory is fundamentally wrong. "Nobody becomes the nominee unless they are doing extremely well among conservatives," he said. Reed pointed out that former president Bush and then-Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) could not have won the South Carolina primaries in 1988 and 1996 by such strong margins if they had not attracted large numbers, if not outright majorities, of religious and social conservatives.

Reed's theory is that candidates must pass through a series of ideological and political "toll booths," at which a candidate must have a stand on such issues as abortion, guns and taxes to get waved through.

Bill McInturff, who polls for Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.), also disputes the two-primary theory and counters with a "four-slots" theory. In his view, a crucial step early in the nomination process is to gain control of one of four "slots": the party regular, the right-to-lifer, the social conservative, or the independent "outsider."

According to McInturff's analysis, Texas Gov. Bush clearly has the lead in the battle to control the party regulars, and his main competitors are Elizabeth Dole and McCain; Bauer, Forbes, Keyes, Buchanan, and Quayle are battling for the right-to-life and social conservative slots, and McCain may end up doing battle with Forbes for the independent outsider slot.

While some Republican strategists debate these theories, others hold to an analysis that provides insight into GOP nomination battles over the last 30 years. Among its various expressions are: "The Democrats kill their kings, we crown them"; "If you are at the head of the line and it's your turn, we will give it to you," or, "Our roots are in the English monarchy and we honor the line of succession."

Under this theory, Reagan did not win the nomination until 1980 because in 1968 Vice President Nixon was first in line, and in 1976, President Ford was the incumbent. By 1980, it was Reagan's "turn." Robert Dole, under this theory, could not win in 1988 because he was challenging the man first in line to succeed Reagan, Vice President Bush. By 1996, however, Dole had become the heir apparent, and he could not be displaced from the nomination.

The 2000 campaign is unusual in that no candidate has a clear claim on the throne under the coronation theory. Despite this, the preponderance of Republican officials and the major donors are treating the eldest son of former president Bush as the legitimate heir.

CAPTION: Former vice president Dan Quayle campaigns Wednesday with Tiffany Connor, 3, at New Life Home for young mothers in Manchester, N.H.