A year ago they came crashing onto the enemy shores of liberal Washington, riding the crest of the New Right wave, self-confident and even self-righteous, convinced that they held the new franchise on truth.

The conservative Republican Senate freshmen were different, no doubt about it, from the moderate and liberal Democrats they replaced. Several had never held public office. At least eight of the 16 GOP newcomers were elected with the help of the political and religious far right.

These New Right senators gave Republicans their first Senate majority in almost 30 years, and President Reagan a dependable bloc of votes. But, in the judgment of many of their peers, they made little imprint beyond that during their first year.

Many regard them as part of the most disappointing class of freshmen in years. And seldom has a group of new lawmakers caused so much uneasiness in Washington.

"They are the new primitives," said Leon Shull, executive director of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. "They want to repeal the 20th century. They're true ideologues."

Sen. Steve Symms (R-Idaho), a grape grower, beat Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Frank Church, whom he had accused of promoting white-flag diplomacy abroad and a welfare state at home.

Sen. John P. East (R-N.C.), a college professor who had never held public office, replaced Robert Morgan, a moderate Democrat, who East told the electorate "voted to give your Panama Canal away."

Sen. James Abdnor (R-S.D.), who was a congressman, defeated former senator and Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern during a race in which New Right groups called McGovern a "baby killer," for supporting legalized abortion, and a friend of Fidel Castro.

The list goes on. All of the New Right senators saw themselves more as missionaries of a new political gospel than as politicians. If they lacked legislative finesse, they were proud of it.

"We might lack some style," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who replaced liberal Democrat John C. Culver, a Harvard graduate and a favorite of the Georgetown set. "But that's all right with me. The people sent me here to do a job. McGovern, Culver and Church had a heck of a lot of style, but look at what they did to the country."

Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), at 32 the youngest member of the Senate, is one example of how the new Republican senators have fared.

Nickles is a religious man. In the words of evangelist Oral Roberts, he "felt a call to go to Washington." He listens to tape-recorded Bible readings on his way to work.

He tells folks back in Oklahoma that they should start each morning by reading "something positive" from the Bible or the writings of Norman Vincent Peale instead of the newspaper, "which is full of bad news, the things that are wrong and negative."

An ultra-conservative, he became chairman of the Senate subcommittee on labor, and genuinely frightened organized labor.

He said he wanted to remove the minimum wage for teen-agers under 18, repeal the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires contractors on federal projects to pay the prevailing local wage, eliminate the eight-hour work day, alter safety regulations protecting sand and gravel workers and reduce workmen's compensation for longshoremen.

But Nickles proved ineffective in moving bills out of his subcommittee. "If you'd have told me last January that we'd get through the whole year without reporting a single piece of anti-labor legislation out of subcommittee, I wouldn't have believed it," one Democratic staffer said.

Fellow senators and outsiders offer similar assessments of other New Right senators. They are faulted for being more interested in rhetoric than in accomplishments. They are accused of not understanding how the Senate works, nor caring about it.

"What bothers me is I don't think they have a sense of the institution that transcends individual issues," one senator said. "The democratic process presupposes that you have differences of opinion, but you respect your opponent's point of view and the element of compromise that the process requires."

"I think Jesse Helms has gotten some support for his pet causes from them," one second-term Democrat said about the conservative senator from North Carolina. "Otherwise, I haven't seen them make much of an impact."

Mostly, many observers say, they have been back-benchers who have followed their president, tended to the interests of their states and not pushed their pet social issues to the floor.

All eight, for example, campaigned against big spending. Yet six of the eight voted for lifting the national debt ceiling to a record $1 trillion.

"Howard Baker has done a pretty good job keeping them all marching in lock step," said Sen. Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.) about the Senate majority leader from Tennessee. "I'll never forget the sight of seeing East, Denton Sen. Jeremiah Denton of Alabama and the rest of them march down the aisle and vote for a $1 trillion national debt. It was a truly amazing performance."

When peanut and tobacco price-support programs, a favorite of North Carolina farmers, came up, East, an ardent free enterpriser, took the anti-free-enterprise, big-spending route by voting for them. His mentor, Helms, took the same tack.

Abdnor, despite the viciousness of his campaign against McGovern, was seldom heard from during the year, except on issues of interest to South Dakota.

Called on to floor-manage a bill late in the session, he was so inept at parliamentary procedure that the Senate ground to a halt for 30 minutes when he and Denton, another New Right senator, knotted themselves up over a minor motion.

Some say the New Right senators have changed the tenor of the Senate.

"They made the Senate a meaner place," said AFL-CIO lobbyist Ray Denison. "I get a real feeling of vengeance from them. They see the world without compassion, and they do it with such Christian fervor.

"I can appreciate conservatives. We've dealt with them for years," he added. "Politics is the currency that has always been understood here. But now everything is done for some higher cause. If Jerry Falwell says a bill is okay, that's it."

Several of the New Right senators, especially during their early months in the Senate, went somewhat beyond conventional bounds in their rhetoric.

At least twice during abortion hearings, East, who has been paralyzed from the waist down since he was 24, said he has often wondered if his mother would have considered abortion if she had known "this fetus is susceptible to polio. And if so, I'd like to have discouraged that."

Later, East signed a letter attempting to raise money for the airing on national television of a pro-military film. "Clearly, we can see the evil nature of communism and the dangers the ruthless tyrants of the Kremlin hold for America," the letter said. "But as a United States senator, I sit in the Senate chamber with many fellow senators who have no idea of what communism is all about."

Denton, during a hearing on international terrorism, went off on a long, rambling discourse in which he said "the press, the church, and Academe . . . lean to the left" and were responsible for losing the Vietnam war.

He also said that if television had been around, World War I would have ended a few months after it began in 1914, with Germany the winner.

Almost from the start, the New Right senators demonstrated an amazing ability to get into embarrassing situations:

Sen. Robert W. Kasten Jr. (R-Wis.) accused liberal Democrat Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin of being out of touch with the needs of ordinary voters during his campaign. Once in the Senate it was discovered Kasten hadn't filed state and federal income tax returns in 1977. Later, The Milwaukee Journal reported, he was "conspicuously absent" from the Senate during a debate on a dairy bill of vital interest to thousands of Wisconsin farmers. Kasten said he was working behind the scene.

Nickles, a favorite of the Moral Majority, angered Baptist supporters by recommending that a state senator, who favored liquor by the drink, be appointed U.S. attorney for the northern district of Oklahoma.

He later upset senior Republicans by putting a hold for two months on a military construction bill because he wanted to add a non-germane amendment to it. The delay, according to Defense Department estimates, added $140 million in inflation costs to the projects. Nickles blamed the delay on Senate liberals.

Grassley cultivated such a deceptive corn-pone image during his early months in Washington that James Flansburgh, The Des Moines Register's political editor, devoted a column to defending the new senator's intellect and debunking a joke then circulating: What state has a senator dumber than Roger W. Jepsen? Answer: Iowa. (Jepsen is Iowa's other Republican senator.)

Then there's Denton, the New Right's biggest riddle in the Senate. His obsessive opposition to sexual permissiveness and sex education sparked rounds of snickers from his colleagues.

One of his earliest legislative efforts was a $30 million bill to promote chastity among teen-agers, introduced in the stated belief that "adolescent promiscuity is emotionally and morally damaging."

Later, during a hearing on marital rape, he said, "Dammit, when you get married you kind of expect you're going to get a little sex."

Such remarks have led critics to ridicule Denton, a man generally well liked by his colleagues. This disturbs New Right leaders, who had hoped he would be the star of the freshman class, a committed crusader for a host of the so-called conservative social issues: anti-busing, school prayer, anti-abortion, anti-gun control.

Denton was one of the true heroes of the Vietnam war, a Navy aviator who spent 7 1/2 years in a prisoner-of-war camp, and signaled home his condition, when his captors staged a television interview, by blinking his eyelids, "Torture, torture, torture" in Morse code.

The first Republican senator elected to the Senate from Alabama in 80 years, Denton was a fervent anti-communist, a true believer in the family, the flag, sexual morality and the Bible, with a national constituency of sorts.

But instead of becoming a symbolic figure bringing credibility to the New Right movement, Denton became almost a caricature.

"Denton is prone to getting himself into things that he can't get out of. He is so naive politically that it's almost impossible to work with him," said one New Right leader outside Congress. "He ends up voting for some things he's against because he doesn't understand what he's doing."

Seldom has a group of new senators had a better chance to shine than the current crop of GOP freshmen. The 16 new Republican senators represented almost a third of the party's membership in the body. Numerically, the eight who received strong New Right support during their campaigns remain a force with which to be reckoned.

Each holds at least one subcommittee chairmanship. Some have used these to advance New Right causes, and they are expected to continue to do so. The separation of powers panel that East heads, for example, last year approved an anti-abortion bill saying that human life begins at conception. The bill is expected to surface again.

"The opportunities have been there, but they haven't seized them, except on peripheral issues," said Norman Ornstein, who heads a Congress project at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank with conservative leanings.

Sen. Lowell P. Weicker (R-Conn.), a frequent opponent of the New Right, predicted that the group will gain in effectiveness this year. "Legislative smarts come with time around here," he said. "I think they realize they have clout just by their sheer numbers. They've got a bloc of votes they can deliver for any cause. I don't think they are mean or vicious or anything like that. They're just wrong."