KATE MICHELMAN, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, hailed "great victories" in last Tuesday's primaries. But Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, professes to be equally encouraged.

Michelman points to the splashy win of abortion-rights advocate Dianne Feinstein in the California Democratic primary for governor. Smith cites the victory of Republican Marion Bergenson in the lieutenant governor's primary.

Iowa, says Michelman, was particularly gratifying because it was "the greatest demonstration to date of pro-choice strength." To Smith, Iowa was a case where an antiabortion candidate for governor, Tom Miller, made a tactical mistake. He was not aggressively antiabortion, but when NARAL moved in with withering fire, he refused to discuss the issue at all.

"The right to choose," Michelman said last week, "is a winning issue in campaigns from the Far West to the South to the heartland."

But Smith says that polls done by such professionals as Richard Wirthlin and Lance Tarrance show that if you ask the second question -- "under what circumstances should abortion be permitted?" -- the antiabortionists are gaining.

The two sides are like the bean-counters of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Again the exact numbers are not so important as the general direction.

Right now, the big races since the Webster decision -- permitting states to limit access to abortion -- have been won by the galvanized abortion-rights forces and candidates. The weakening of the antiabortion forces was indicated by the extraordinary decision of the Catholic hierarchy to let out a contract for $5 million to a public-relations firm in the hope that it would persuade where they had failed.

They had permitted NOW, NARAL and other feminist organizations to define the issue, to fashion the rhetoric. Those groups never put it in terms of "death" and "murder" or even "pro-abortion"; they stated it as an intellectual choice between the government's right to decide and a woman's. The antiabortionists, in the years immediately following Roe v. Wade, were elaborately obnoxious. Some prelates prophesied hell for New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who abhors abortion but declines to inflict his views on others.

But they are learning. There are still zealots who bomb abortion clinics and harass women who seek to patronize them. But there is a general acknowledgment that a different approach is needed. Recently Cardinal O'Connor of New York, one of the most insistent antiabortion advocates, came to a rally in Washington and made an earnest appeal to women carrying unwanted children to go to New York for complete maternity care. Americans by two-thirds think that abortion is murder and that the life of the unborn should be protected by law. And two-thirds also think that women should make the decision about abortion. Most people think that 1.5 million abortions a year is too many.

Sophisticated abortion-rights people are aware of this, and they are nervous despite their victories. They talk of having beaten back legislation, of having politicians jumping to their tune and dividing the Republicans, but the Webster decision made them realize the fragility of their claim that abortion has been established as a "right."

The politics of abortion is unclear, too. Democrats are uneasy about this new "winning" issue. It's too emotional. They didn't expect to be coping with it 13 years after Roe v. Wade. Republicans know their antiabortion stand revives their "anti-woman" image, the perception of them as a knot of white men with close-together, deepset eyes who seethe with the suspicion that minority women are plotting to hoodwink or impoverish them.

An organization called "JustLife" has stepped in to break a few stereotypes. "JustLife" says it is not enough to be antiabortion. It is necessary to have a public policy that addresses the reasons why women seek abortions. The organization endorses candidates and gives them PAC money if they support eight bills which help a woman bear her child, provide her with AFDC funds during pregnancy and help her keep the child or have it adopted.

"JustLife" is endorsing 46 Democrats and eight Republicans. Says campaign coordinator David Medema, "If they ask us not to endorse them in public, we won't."

On the list of Democrats are such distinguished House liberals as David Bonior and Dale Kildee of Michigan and Marcy Kaptur and Mary Rose Oakar of Ohio. They have helped the poor, taken forward positions on sticky issues -- Bonior led the fight against the contras, and Kildee, an advocate of Head Start, says brave things about the Middle East. None of them can be accused of being, as Barney Frank said famously about the Reagan administration, "concerned with children from conception to birth."

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.