Somewhere between Baghdad and the budget the great abortion debate of 1990 fell off the political screen, but as the midterm election campaigns grind toward their conclusion Tuesday, the issue is still being felt in many races.

On the final weekend of this year's campaign, abortion plays a role in Senate races from North Carolina to Iowa to Oregon, gubernatorial races in Florida, Ohio, Texas, Kansas and Minnesota, and in House races from Idaho to Maine as well as the local battle of negative abortion ads between Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.) and Alexandria Mayor James P. Moran Jr. (D) in Northern Virginia.

But the issue that convulsed American politics and captured enormous media attention a year ago is playing out differently in 1990. Abortion's power is more muted, its impact more selective.

"The difference between 1989 and 1990 is that the political environment has changed," said Debra Dodson of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August, the budget spectacle of the past month and fears of a deteriorating economy have pushed the focus of these elections away from abortion and other issues that once loomed large.

"This election has to do with the economy turning negative, it has to do with government not working and it has to do with the country being off the track," said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster. "Abortion just doesn't figure into that equation."

The issue also appears to have lost some of the political punch it carried in the months after the July 1989 Supreme Court's Webster v. Reproductive Health Services decision that permitted state legislatures to consider additional restrictions on abortion.

One Democratic political operative, who asked not to be identified because of the races in which he is involved, put it this way: "There's much less concern about the issue, particularly among pro-choice voters. I don't think they feel the same risk to the right {to have an abortion} that they did around the time of Webster. I think in fact that as a single-issue vote it is more important for pro-life voters than for pro-choice voters."

"The fear factor has been tremendously reduced," added Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster. "Abortion law has not been overturned in the course of the past year."

But Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said, "Just because there are less minutes on TV and less column inches in the papers does not mean voters don't pay attention. . . . Voters use abortion as a key marker in deciding about candidates."

"It is remarkable that abortion matters at all when the country is on the brink of economic recession and war," said Harrison Hickman, another Democratic pollster. "It's a very resilient issue."

Opponents of abortion argue that 1990 looks different because the media exaggerated the strength of the abortion-rights coalition in 1989.

"The issue is not different politically than it was a year ago or two years ago or three years ago," said David O'Steen of the National Right to Life Committee. "Last year was hyped greatly and often erroneously. . . . We felt like a voice in the wilderness."

The expectations for 1990 were set by two elections last November in which the winners made a strong abortion-rights position a centerpiece of their campaigns: Democrat L. Douglas Wilder's victory in the Virginia gubernatorial election and Democrat Jim Florio's victory in the New Jersey gubernatorial contest. Coming so soon after the Webster decision and played out in a vacuum of other national issues, abortion -- with the help of the media -- became the overriding issue.

Those victories scared many antiabortion politicians, who believed with some justification that there was an abortion-rights juggernaut rolling through the country. A number of candidates either reversed course, saying they now favored abortion rights, or hedged once rigid antiabortion positions.

High on that list are Anthony Celebrezze, the Ohio Democratic gubernatorial candidate who had been endorsed by the National Right to Life Committee, and David Emery, a Republican House candidate in Maine who outraged abortion opponents by flip-flopping just before he entered the race for his old congressional seat.

But neither has found his conversion to be a guarantee of electoral success. Emery is likely to lose his race, in part because his old friends in the antiabortion movement have abandoned him. Celebrezze, despite some apparent gains from his new position, trails Republican George Voinovich, who opposes abortion, although less rigidly.

Another difference this year is that candidates who oppose abortion have been more skillful in neutralizing the issue in their campaigns. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Robert P. Casey (D), who signed one of the most restrictive abortion bills in the country in 1989, drew a female challenger who ran almost strictly on her support of abortion, and is cruising toward a whopping reelection victory. Casey's experience and record on other issues submerged abortion in the campaign.

In other races, candidates opposing abortion have fired back at opponents who criticized their position, in some cases trying to shift the debate by calling their opponents extremists for favoring abortion in the final weeks of pregnancy or for sex selection. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) has used this tactic in his neck-and-neck race with Democrat Harvey Gantt.

In Iowa, Rep. Thomas J. Tauke (R), absorbing the lesson of Republicans who waffled in 1989 and paid dearly for it, did not shrink from his opposition to abortion in his contest with Sen. Tom Harkin (D). "The key for me is to discuss it straightforwardly," Tauke said, "and then it's not a character issue for me."

Iowa may turn out to be Example No. 1 of why it will be hard to draw conclusions about the impact of abortion this year. Harkin, a proponent of abortion rights, leads Tauke in the Senate race, while Gov. Terry Branstad (R), who opposes abortion, leads House Speaker Don Avenson (D), who won his primary with the issue and hoped it would propel him past Branstad in the general election.

Increasingly abortion is seen as a tool for attracting particular kinds of voters who could make a difference in close elections. In Michigan's gubernatorial race, for example, state Sen. John Engler (R), who is antiabortion, trails Gov. James J. Blanchard (D), in part because Engler has lost the support of Republican women in suburban Oakland County, which is crucial to Republican success. That may not be a coincidence since the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) targeted that county with a grass-roots effort designed to attract GOP votes to Blanchard, who supports abortion rights.

In Florida, Gov. Bob Martinez (R) is having a similar problem, with many Republican women undecided. Polls shows those undecided women overwhelmingly support abortion rights.

Activists are flooding mail boxes with final appeals and are using phone banks to mobilize voters in many races, including the Texas gubernatorial race, where abortion-rights supporters are working hard for Democrat Ann Richards, and the Minnesota gubernatorial race, where abortion opponents are helping Gov. Rudy Perpich (D). Activists on both sides also are pouring their energies into ballot initiatives in Nevada and Oregon.

The abortion issue could have its greatest impact on races that are least visible nationally: for state legislatures. The most prominent of these races is in Pennsylvania, where NARAL has blanketed the district of state Rep. Steven Freind (R), the sponsor of that state's antiabortion law.

One other reason the abortion issue plays differently this fall is that many voters are simply tiring of the debate. "I think the people of Northern Virginia and the United States are getting a bellyful," said Rep. Parris.