WASHINGTON -- For the Republican Party and the Republican president, yesterday's Senate elections were something slightly less than a wash.
The GOP entered the elections with a 55-45 disadvantage in the Senate. By the time most of the ballots had been counted, the Republican minority appeared certain to shrink by one. In a year supposedly characterized by widespread public disenchantment with the political establishment, voters endorsed every incumbent with the sole exception of Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota.
Both parties defended their incumbents from strong challenges. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., for exampled, survived the challenge of his life from Democrat Harvey Gantt, who, if elected, would have been the first black to serve in the Senate since 1979.
In New Jersey, Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley beat back an unexpectedly stiff challenge from Republican Christine Todd Whitman, a former state public utilities commissioner.
In Hawaii, incumbent Sen. Daniel Akaka, a Democrat, overcame a vigorous effort by Republican Representative Patricia Saiki.
The GOP did not suffer the blowout pundits contemplated a few weeks ago, the kind of disaster-at-the-polls that could have inflated the Democrats' healthy 55-45 Senate majority by an additional three or four seats.
On the other hand, the bold targets marked by GOP strategists at the beginning of the campaign season -- predictions that Republican challengers would topple vulnerable Democratic incumbents and bring the party within striking distance of a Senate majority -- weren't hit, either.
"The party had hoped for a knockout blow," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "Instead, they have to settle for a split decision."
And it is a decision that could be reversed in the 1992 congressional elections. In October, Republican candidates suffered in the polls as the budget debate dragged on in Washington and Democrats tagged the president and members his party as shills for the rich. Only in November -- when the crisis in the Middle East moved back to the front pages -- and the economic issues receded in the public consciousness -- did some of those ailing Republican candidacies rebound.
Analysts of both parties believe that the issues of October could dominate the political debate anew, once the issues of November -- the conflict triggered by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait -- are resolved.
"Bush succeeded in draping the Persian Gulf over the pattern that had developed during the past three or four weeks: If the election had been held on Oct. 29 or 30, before the Persian Gulf dominated the equation, the Republicans could have been down two or three," said Kevin Phillips, a Republican political observer. "Once the Middle East calms down, Democrats will start to bang the drums of October again, and people will start to listen to them. The Republicans will be in a fix."
Indeed, Republicans had once hoped that yesterday's elections would propel them within striking distance of the Senate majority, which they surrendered to Democrats in 1986.
With President Bush expected to run for a second term in 1992, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas predicted: "I think you're going to see some long coattails for Republican Senate candidates -- tuxedo coattails."
But Mr. Dole offered that prediction in April. Since then, it has become increasingly apparent that Republicans would have enormous trouble unseating such Democratic senators as Carl Levin of Michigan, Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island,Paul Simon of Illinois and Tom Harkin of Iowa -- all perceived to be vulnerable, all challenged by experienced and savvy Republican House members.
As the Republican challenges of Representatives Bill Schuette of Michigan, Claudine Schneider of Rhode Island, Lynn Martin of Illinois, and Tom Tauke of Iowa faltered, some Republican strategists quietly abandoned hopes of recapturing the Senate's majority two years hence.
But that assessment may be needlessly pessimistic. Democrats have not enjoyed such a lopsided Senate majority since 1980, when they outnumbered Republicans 59-41.