The House ethics committee's decision to investigate House Speaker Jim Wright's financial dealings is fueling Republican efforts to shed the "sleaze" issue as a GOP albatross in the 1988 presidential campaign.

For months, Democrats have been eager to cultivate what they believe was a fertile general election issue - the ethics problems of past and present Reagan administration officials, particularly Attorney General Edwin Meese III and White House ties to Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, who is under U.S. indictment on drug smuggling charges.But Wright's difficulties are dampening that eagerness.

"On the news, when they talk about Meese and Noriega, the follow-up story is always Wright," said one senior aide to Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democrats' apparent presidential nominee. "Clearly the perception out there is that the Democrats have some corruption problems, too. It's difficult to have one of the highest members of the family under investigation. When we watch the daily news, we cringe."

On the campaign trail, Vice President George Bush has called for the House panel, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, to use an outside counsel to investigate the charges against Wright.

At a Houston news conference earlier this week, Bush served notice to Dukakis that he would link him to Wright's problems "the way he tries to make naughty stuff stick to me."

Dukakis, meanwhile, has said a House inquiry into the speaker's affairs is in order, noting Wright's pledges of cooperation with any probe.

The fact that Wright chairs the party's nominating convention in Atlanta next month will make matters even more uncomfortable for Dukakis, predicted one conservative GOP activist.

"It'll be a continually mentioned issue throughout the convention," claimed Dan Casey, executive director of the American Conservative Union.

However, most Democrats and some other observers predict the speaker's difficulties will not play a significant role in the campaign.

"Jim Wright is not likely to become a major issue in this campaign because I think George Bush won't choose to run against him," said Ronald Peters, director of the Carl Albert Center for Congressional Studies. "In the end, Bush knows he might have to work with Wright."

In addition, Democrats feel that the magnitude of the GOP ethics problem - several dozen administration officials either have had brushes with ethics rules or have been accused of lawbreaking and several have been convicted - will make Wright's problems pale by comparison. Furthermore, they say, Dukakis has no ties with Wright in the same way that Bush is part of the Reagan administration.

"This is politics," shrugged one top House aide Friday when asked about the allegations against Wright. "We'll have to let the chips fall where they may."

House ethics committee chairman Julian Dixon, D-Calif., announced Friday the committee voted 12-0 to undertake a preliminary inquiry of Wright's financial dealings.