WASHINGTON -- Back when Republican Representative Wayne T. Gilchrest was a poor little challenger running against a rich incumbent on Maryland's Eastern Shore, he needed every dime he could get. So it was almost like magic when one day last year someone offered to round him up as much as $100,000, a political bonanza by any standard.
The money, the would-be philanthropist explained, would come from a network of pro-Israel political action committees.
Though Mr. Gilchrest is skeptical that the Maryland man, whom he declined to identify, could have delivered the full amount, he nonetheless got the message: This was one powerful lobby.
How powerful? Wealthy enough to pump more than $4 million from political action committees into the 1990 election campaigns of representatives and senators, putting it on a par with such heavyweight givers as the oil industry. Well-organized enough to call to arms at short notice more than 1,200 community leaders from around the country to march the halls of Capitol Hill. And bold enough to warn at least one lawmaker that he'd have the blood of a pogrom on his hands if he didn't support immediate loan guarantees for Israeli resettlement of Soviet Jews.
Mr. Gilchrest turned down the offer of $100,000, saying he couldn't live up to the implicit obligation of unqualified support. The 1st District Republican has since been an occasional supporter of Israeli interests, while watching with fascination the workings of the lobby, as led by the efforts of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee.
"It's not so dissimilar to the NRA [National Rifle Association]," he has concluded.
For all its various powers of persuasion, however, a new, uncertain age is dawning for AIPAC. Far more important to its power than either fear or money has been its ability to portray Israel's interests as identical to those of the United States, partly because its hostile Arab neighbors were backed by the Soviet Union. But now that the Soviets have left the stage, the United States is pursuing a new role of mediation before a suddenly receptive Arab audience.
As if to signal this era's arrival, the dispute arose with Mr. Bush on the touchy issue of the loan guarantees; touchy because new settlements on disputed territory are a flash point with the Arabs. Some think this issue, along with other disagreements sure to follow, will begin a gradual dismantling of AIPAC's longtime aura of invincibility.
"I think that the current situation shows that AIPAC's power has been greatly exaggerated," said Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, a bimonthly magazine billed as a Jewish critique of politics and culture.
Before now, he said, members of Congress "haven't even considered the notion that they could say no. . . . Once the myth has disappeared, the pendulum could swing too far in the other direction, and they may say no too much."
That may be even more of a certainty if Israel continues to reinforce its settlements in disputed lands with brute force against Palestinians, Mr. Lerner said. "Israel's only capital [in the United States] is the moral credibility that it has among the American populace. It's not as if Israel has oil or economic benefits it can bring to the United States."
AIPAC's public support fared poorly last week when pitted against the president on the loan guarantee question. An ABC poll said 86 percent of Americans backed Mr. Bush.
Those kinds of numbers have put members of Congress "in a hell of a squeeze" on the issue, said former Sen. James G. Abourezk, D-S.D. Mr. Abourezk, chairman of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and a longtime adversary of AIPAC, said that lawmakers were "torn between exposing themselves to the constituents and exposing themselves to the lobby, which has a long memory."
As a result, practically no one on Capitol Hill wants the matter to come to a vote. Still, lawmakers and Capitol Hill staff members say that AIPAC is having little trouble rounding up a veto-proof margin of support -- 67 votes in the 100-member Senate -- for its position, though a two-thirds majority may be lacking in the House of Representatives.
But AIPAC also hopes to avoid a vote, fearing that even a victory could in the long run undermine support with a residue of bad feeling. Or worse, say others.
"The last thing I want to see is a backlash that creates anti-Semitism," Mr. Gilchrest said. "I think that's possible."
Such a reaction is always possible where AIPAC and the pro-Israel lobby are concerned, Mr. Lerner said, which is one reason the lobby is ambivalent about its perceived muscle. "It's a traditional anti-Semitic fantasy that the Jews are running everything," he said.