Financially strapped governors gave an enthusiastic reception Sunday to assurances from White House staff chief John Sununu that states won't lose money under President Bush's plan to give them responsibility for $15 billion in domestic programs.

Gov. Booth Gardner of Washington, a Democrat and chairman of the National Governors' Association, said the bipartisan response to Sununu's briefing was "enthusiastic to the idea; cautious based on past experience."In past attempts to shift programs to the states, Gardner said, "there tended to be winners and losers." The losers tended to be the states.

The closed meeting was held on the opening day of the group's annual midwinter conference. The major topic of the three-day meeting will be how states can get out from under the burden of federal requirements to use state funds for such programs as Medicaid.

The governors warily approached the Bush proposal, included in a single paragraph of his State of the Union message. Sununu's purpose was to relieve their concerns, and first indications were he succeeded.

"What we want to do is give the states more flexibility and reduce some of the mandates," Sununu said.

Sununu was governor of New Hampshire when President Reagan proposed a program shift that was rejected by the governors on the grounds it was nothing more than an effort to force the states to pick up program costs being borne by the federal government.

Sununu said the federal budget, to be presented to Congress on Monday, will contain a list of $22 billion in programs the administration considers candidates for transfer to the states.