WASHINGTON -- Inspired by images of the defeated Iraqi army fleeing in terror across the desert last winter, Republican campaign strategists began planning a rout of their own.
Republican Party candidates, led by a battalion of returning Persian Gulf war veterans, would storm the campaign trail in 1992, toppling Democratic senators and congressmen who had opposed the use of military force against Saddam Hussein.
"I think it could be 1980 all over again," said Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, referring to the breakthrough year when Republicans picked up 12 Senate seats and took control of the upper house from the Democrats.
Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the House whip and an influential party thinker, said, "Republicans will run 80 recent veterans" in next year's House elections. He cited a precedent: the scores of returning veterans of World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam who had gone on to serve with distinction in Congress.
Six months later, things don't seem to be working out quite the way the Republicans had planned.
President Bush remains as politically powerful as ever, but GOP dreams of significant gains in next year's elections for Congress are fading.
The commander of Operation Desert Storm, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, declined to answer the call of Florida Republicans, who had pressed him to take on first-term Democratic Sen. Bob Graham. His decision typifies the disappointments GOP recruiters have encountered in attempting to enlist well-known candidates, whether military veterans or political ones, to challenge potentially vulnerable Democrats, at least in Senate races.
The GOP candidate army of war veterans has yet to materialize. Of the roughly 500 candidates Republicans have already identified for next year's House and Senate races, only a literal handful served in the gulf, and several of them had previous experience as elected officials or party activists.
"You had more than 500,000 people serving over there," Republican consultant Bill McInturff notes, a random cross section of society so large as to all but guarantee it would include some future political candidates.
One of them is Christopher Burnham of Stamford, Conn., one of thousands of reservists called up last fall. The 35-year-old investment banker, who commanded a Marine platoon that helped liberate Kuwait City in February, is also a member of the Connecticut Legislature.
Mr. Burnham recently formed a campaign committee for a possible race against Democratic Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, regarded by both parties as potentially vulnerable in next year's election and one of 224 Democratic senators and congressmen to oppose last January's resolution authorizing the use of military force in the gulf.
As it will in races throughout the country next year, that vote will undoubtedly come up in the Connecticut Senate contest, though Mr. Burnham insists it would not be the centerpiece of his campaign.
"The gulf war certainly changed many of us, but it's not an issue that you run on or make a key issue of your campaign," he says. "I just don't want to exploit it."
Mr. Burnham may not even become a candidate at all, if Representative Nancy L. Johnson, the first choice of state and national Republican leaders, gets into the race.
Mrs. Johnson remains undecided, and her hesitation to abandon her House seat is symptomatic of the problems facing GOP recruiters. Her feelings are understandable, though, in view of what happened to the five House GOP members who challenged Democratic senators in 1990; all five lost.
The reluctance of a number of prominent Republican congressmen and governors to oppose incumbent Democratic senators is one of the reasons some political analysts have concluded that a GOP takeover of the Senate seems increasingly unlikely next year. And while possible challengers hesitate, senators of both parties are fattening their re-election campaign war chests, making it tougher for late-starting opponents to compete on an equal footing.
Potentially vulnerable Senate Democrats have thus far escaped serious challenge in a number of states, including Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada and South Carolina. Republican senators up for re-election, meantime, face potentially tough Democratic challengers in New York, California, Alaska and Wisconsin.
Democrats have some endangered Senate incumbents of their own, in the states of Washington, North Carolina and Colorado, among others. And with many politicians expecting a Bush DTC landslide next November, there is always a chance that even some Republican long shots could be swept to victory in the process.
So far, there is little to suggest such a result. Public opinion polls, including a series of NBC News-Wall Street Journal surveys conducted between September 1989 and late July, show that the number of Americans who say they plan to vote Republican in the next election for Congress has not changed significantly and that Democrats still hold an edge.
With Democrats maintaining a 101-seat advantage in the House, a GOP takeover in 1992 was never in the cards anyway. But even the Senate, where a seven-seat swing would put Republicans in charge, will be an uphill fight for the president's party.
In contrast to last winter's optimism, Mr. Gramm and other Republican officials are extremely cautious in assessing their party's chances these days.
"I'd be the first person to say there are a lot of uncertainties out there," said the Texas senator, who professes to be "happy that people are beginning to low-ball" GOP Senate prospects.
Despite criticism from some in the party that the White House has not been aggressive enough in urging prominent Republicans to run, Mr. Gramm says that recruiting is "going pretty well," and that it is still too early to measure the success or failure of efforts to persuade potentialcandidates to run.
He puts the best possible face on the refusal of House members and governors to challenge Democratic senators by insisting that the most desirable GOP contenders in some cases aren't popular elected officials but "Wendell Willkie candidates," citizen politicians with good speaking skills, some familiarity with the campaign process and lots of personal money to invest in their own candidacies.
Mr. Gramm said his research into his party's repeated failures to cut the Democratic majority in Congress over the last decade suggests that Republicans wasted too much money and effort in the early stages of their campaigns, rather than holding back until the final days before the election when most voters are paying closer attention.
Democratic campaign officials, who say they are taking nothing for granted, can't help chuckling at Mr. Gramm's explanations, which they regard as rationalizing by an opposition party that is having a tough time finding suitable candidates.
"Every time that they have to fall back on that is a day that they're losing," said Jeff Eller, communications director for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.