The headlong retreat of panicky Republican politicians from their previous antiabortion stance may have been arrested by the Nov. 6 election and particularly by John Engler's surprise victory for governor of Michigan.

Engler's campaign did not trumpet pro-life views he pressed as Republican leader of the state senate. But 23.7 percent of his supporters in Market Opinion Research exit polls gave abortion as a reason for their vote. In contrast, the issue was cited by only 17.3 percent of voters backing defeated pro-choice Democratic Gov. James Blanchard.

Obviously, Engler's antiabortion stance was not the reason he was elected. But the message from Michigan and elsewhere is that his views are not poison in the face of popular support for abortion rights. The 1990 elections, therefore, checked the abortion movement's triumphant march since the Supreme Court's Webster decision last year transformed the political climate.

GOP abortion rights activists at Republican national headquarters have been whispering for over a year that it is imperative for the survival of the president and the party to back away from the platform's antiabortion plank. But the midterm elections suggest that a second retreat by President Bush might compound the havoc wrought when he broke his tax pledge.

Wary abortion rights advocates simply deny what happened at the polls. "Where being pro-choice or anti-choice made a difference and where voters were convinced it was going to make a difference, the electoral margin usually went to the pro-choice candidate," liberal political consultant Ann Lewis said the day after the election.

Hedged though her comments were, they are not true. The results, while mixed, in fact came down on the antiabortion side. The survival rate for pro-life politicians was remarkable.

Iowa's race for governor was described by the Democratic candidate, pro-choice house Speaker Don Avenson, as a national referendum on abortion. He lost to pro-life Gov. Terry Branstad in a state where polls show substantial support for abortion rights and where the results were reversed in the U.S. Senate race. But that makes the point: In Iowa, as in Michigan, the pro-life label does not kill.

What can be fatal is a quick switch that voters will take as opportunism on an issue that transcends politics. Two Democratic state attorneys general -- Tony Celebrezze in Ohio and Neil Hartigan in Illinois -- lost for governor after an abrupt switch to pro-choice.

Republican Gov. Mike Hayden of Kansas, in deep trouble for raising taxes, also switched to pro-choice and lost to pro-life Democratic State Treasurer Joan Finney. The GOP effort to defeat pro-life Democratic Gov. Robert Casey with feminist, pro-choice State Auditor Barbara Hafer proved a fiasco.

While abortion rights advocates captured the governorships in Texas and Florida and gained a little in Congress, pro-life candidates scored substantially in state legislative races where abortion was a real issue. Antiabortion forces, though losing the Montana legislature and the Idaho Senate, won control of the North Dakota senate, the Ohio and West Virginia legislatures and, surprisingly, the New York senate.

Perhaps most stunning was the sweeping victory of Republican pro-lifers in Maryland legislative races, reversing defeats for antiabortion leaders in September primaries. "I think what we're looking at has nothing at all to do with the election issue," said Steven Rivells, who runs the Maryland pro-choice political action committee.

That's exactly the point. If candidates in every section of the country can win in spite of -- not because of -- being against abortion, that is a signal victory for the antiabortion movement. It tells politicians from George Bush on down they can adhere to principle on this highly emotional, highly personal issue and need not retreat for the sake of political survival.