WEST CHESTER, Pa. -- See Richard L. Thornburgh handshake his way down the leafy sidewalks of this southeast Pennsylvania town and you know you're looking at a front-running candidate for senator.
But if Democratic and Republican campaign officials in Washington glimpsed the same scene, they'd see something else: 1992.
While the former attorney general works to protect his lead in the race for the seat of the late Sen. John Heinz, who was killed in a midair plane crash last spring, strategists in both parties are watching for clues to next year's national campaign.
Pennsylvania's split-level economy, with pockets of prosperity and pockets of hurt, is an ideal test market for 1992 campaign themes. And Waspy, Yale-educated Mr. Thornburgh, who chaired the Bush Cabinet's domestic policy council, is a perfect stand-in for the president.
"This is like a Spanish Civil War," said Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, referring to the 1930s conflict Nazi Germany used as a trial run for its World War II combat tactics.
For Republicans, winning the Pennsylvania special election, the only Senate race in the country this year, is the first step in the party's uphill quest for control of the Senate in 1992. The Democrats' majority grew to 57-43 in May when Democratic Gov. Robert P. Casey of Pennsylvania appointed an old friend, Harris L. Wofford, to temporarily fill Republican Heinz's seat.
If Mr. Thornburgh loses, says Mr. Gramm, "we cannot and will not win the Senate back" next year.
While Democrats may well retain their Senate majority next year, Democratic victory here appears unlikely at the moment. Instead, this race has the makings of a colossal mismatch.
Mr. Thornburgh, 59, is a seasoned campaigner who twice wonelections for governor. Though his tenure as head of the Justice Department in the Reagan and Bush administrations was regarded as something of a disappointment, both in Washington and here at home, he remains personally popular with Pennsylvania voters.
He is expected to outspend his Democratic rival by as much as 2-to-1, or more. With seven weeks before Election Day, private polls show Mr. Thornburgh with a huge lead.
Democrats say he is as much as 45 points ahead, although a longtime Thornburgh political aide, Murray G. Dickman, calls that figure a gross exaggeration. The actual margin, he says, is in the low 30s.
Democratic hopes of tripping up Mr. Thornburgh rest with Mr. Wofford, a former college president who has never run for public office. His only brush with political fame came more than 30 years ago, as a civil rights adviser in John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign, when he helped engineer Mr. Kennedy's phone call to a Georgia judge urging that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. be released from jail.
Mr. Wofford, 65, was not even Governor Casey's first choice. He got the Senate job only after others, including Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca, turned it down.
On the pivotal issue of abortion, Democrats may have forfeited the opportunity to challenge Mr. Thornburgh, who as attorney general supported administration efforts to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. Mr. Casey, an anti-abortion Democrat, reportedly refused to appoint anyone who supported abortion rights.
Mr. Wofford's candidacy is further hampered by the fact he is unknown to most Pennsylvania voters. (Mr. Thornburgh, playing on his opponent's anonymity, sometimes refers to him as "Mr. Woof-erd.")
Still, Republicans aren't taking any chances. The GOP Senate campaign committee in Washington has dispatched campaign workers to Pennsylvania, which will provide them with valuable combat experience for 1992's political wars, according to Mr. Gramm. The committee is also assisting the state Republican Party with an ambitious absentee ballot drive.
And last week, the Republicans rolled out their heavy artillery, sending President Bush helicoptering into Philadelphia for the first of two scheduled appearances in the state, a fund-raiser that collected $720,000, according to Thornburgh aides.
Mr. Bush tried out some 1992 themes of his own. He argued that the Democratic opposition in Congress, and not a lack of ideas at the White House, was responsible for the administration's failure to do more on the domestic front.
Democratic politicians, despite the long odds facing their candidate, insist they've got an outside chance to upset Mr. Thornburgh.
They take heart from the fact that the Republican has yet to knock Mr. Wofford out of the race. They see a recent decision by the debt-ridden Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to commit $500,000 to the contest as an encouraging sign.
And for all Mr. Wofford's inexperience, his campaign is being run by one of the Democrats' brashest and most resourceful operatives, James Carville.
But the real reason Democrats haven't given up is this state's Democratic registration edge and a struggling economy, especially in western Pennsylvania.