The conservative movement in America has fallen on good times and isn't yet sure what to do about it.

After a generation of staunch anti-communism, conservatives have greeted the breakdown of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and the moves toward democracy inside the Soviet Union with a mixture of jubilation and trepidation. They don't know whether to declare victory and come home or continue their vigilance against the historic threat.

As a result, on the eve of next week's summit between President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, conservatives are engaged in a spirited internal debate, ranging from whether changes in the Soviet Union are genuine to how the right can seize control of an altered domestic agenda before the Democrats do.

Many conservatives believe their views about communism have been validated by the events of the last 18 months, but they also understand that the glue that held their coalition together politically is gone. Conservative direct-mail fund-raisers have felt the pinch: no one's afraid of the Bear anymore.

"Conservatives have to come up with a different world view to be credible," said Paul Weyrich, who heads the Free Congress Foundation and has spent an increasing amount of time working with candidates for local offices in the Soviet Union. He jokes that his record of electing candidates there "is a lot better than over here."

Conservatives appear caught between their reflexive anti-communist instincts and their desires to move on to a new agenda. The traditional reflexes were in evidence this past week, when Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III had to defend themselves from conservative critics who charged that Baker had given away too much during recent arms control talks in Moscow.

"I think we have to worry about the Soviet threat as much today as we did five years ago," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), one of nine conservative senators who sent a letter to Bush expressing reservations about the direction of arms control talks with the Soviets. "But I do think . . . over the next year or two we probably will not. But we're not there yet."

As the summit approaches, conservatives are increasingly restive about U.S. policy toward the Soviets. They object -- some vehemently -- to Bush's handling of Lithuania's bid for independence, arguing that Bush should have recognized Lithuania immediately, and they fear that the administration is too anxious to lock in agreements that could be harmful to the United States because negotiators prefer dealing with Gorbachev to an unknown successor.

Although many have refrained from criticizing Bush directly, conservatives believe he has abdicated the bully pulpit used by President Ronald Reagan in the '80s to express aspirations for freedom around the world in exchange for a cautious policy of realpolitik.

If conservative criticisms have a common thread, it's that they don't buy the administration's apparent assumption that the choice is between Gorbachev or a return to the hard-liners. They believe that U.S. policy is tied too closely to Gorbachev's future and they prefer a more hard-headed policy designed to encourage freedom and democracy inside the Soviet Union, no matter what the impact on Gorbachev.

"It's not to say that Gorbachev is not important. He is," said Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.). "He's brought about some major changes. But I think it's a bad mistake to tie our policies to one man. Whether Gorbachev is there or not, we want to assure that the reforms there continue after Gorbachev is no longer in power."

Conservatives argue that the administration's commitment to Gorbachev has led to timidity in pressing U.S. advantages at a time of Soviet weakness. "If this were a poker game, America would be holding five aces," said Rep. C. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.). "It would be very hard to lose, but we've got to play the hand. We can't sit out the game."

But even on Gorbachev, conservatives can't agree.

One extreme came from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who believes that the sooner Gorbachev is gone the sooner will come genuine democratic reforms. "Conservatives do not see keeping Gorbachev in power as a laudable goal," he said. "Most see him as communism's last gasp."

A dissent came from Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.), who called Gorbachev the "brightest Soviet leader since Lenin," and said, "We've got to figure out a way to keep him around to prevent a return to Stalinism."

Without taking sides in the should-he-go-or-stay debate, House Minority Whip New Gingrich (R-Ga.) said of conservatives, "We have to advocate the most rapid expansion possible of freedom inside the Soviet Union."

Although conservatives have seized on the arms control talks to criticize the administration, there is no crown-jewel issue comparable to the goal of preserving the strategic defense initiative (SDI) during Reagan's summits. Instead, their current summit agenda ranges from aspects of arms control to the Baltics to more rapid progress on conventional arms talks to trade to encouragement of democratic reforms to regional conflicts. Some even argue that next week's summit isn't that all crucial.

Indeed, such prominent conservatives as Gingrich and Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) have urged conservatives to regroup quickly and face up to domestic challenges.

Gramm argues that the worldwide movement toward democracy ultimately benefits conservatives in this country, and calls liberals and the Democratic Party among the last defenders of big government in the world. But Gramm sees a battle brewing over the peace dividend from proposed cuts in the defense budget, and fears that if Democrats can convert the money to domestic programs, they will enlarge their constituency at Republican expense. He prefers to see the peace dividend redistributed to the people through tax cuts.

"The political stakes in this debate are very high," Gramm said. "And I give them {Democrats} credit. They understand the politics better than Republicans."

Conservatives have been cranking out papers and speeches on their new agenda, hoping to spark a new consensus to replace the anti-communist bedrock of the past.

Weyrich, in a paper delivered last week, urged development of "a coherent, positive agenda" for conservatives. "Neither Reagan nor the conservative movement had or has advanced a compelling vision of what an America governed according to conservative principles will look like," he said.

In a speech widely read by conservatives, deputy presidential assistant James Pinkerton described the effort as the search for a "new paradigm."

Some conservatives object to suggestions that the decline of communism has left them without their most compelling issue. "The conservative team is coming off the field with a 50-0 victory," Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) said. "Now is not the time to say we ought to be underdogs or that we're not healthy."

But privately some of them scoff at these upbeat expressions. "As a movement we have to retool our factory," one conservative said.

Walker conceded that the absence of the anti-communism "hot buttons" presents conservatives with a challenge. "Some years ago the movement was so narrowly focused it would have been difficult to make the transition," he added. "But we've broadened the banner under which we march."

Not all conservatives are agonizing, however. Says Dornan, for example: "I have been totally mystified by the internal mental wanderings in the conservative movement. I have not had a fleeting moment of thought."

To Dornan, the Cubas, North Koreas and Angolas of the world represent unfinished battles in the effort to slay communism. The Great Bear may have been partially defanged, he said. But "there are all sorts of little bears in the woods who are dangerous."