Three black Republicans who lost congressional bids in Virginia and Maryland admit they were long shots but say they're only the "scouts in the first reconnaissance mission" into a party that for the last 25 years was seen as a bastion of the rich and white.

Emancipated slaves and their children once clung to the GOP, the party of Abraham Lincoln, as their advocates against the Southern white segregationists who controlled the Democratic Party. But the shift by Democrats to embrace civil rights in the 1960s prompted blacks to switch their political identification.But the pendulum appears to be swinging back. Political analysts at-tribute the change in part to growing economic power of blacks, especially young professionals with upwardly mobile jobs, greater disposable income and no children.

"Over the long run, as blacks get closer to achieving full integration, they'll want the economic dividends," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

The Republicans have begun to notice the change and in 1988 nominated three blacks in Maryland and Virginia to run for Congress.

Retired Maj. Gen. Jerry Curry ran against Rep. Owen Pickett, D-Va., in the 2nd Congressional District of Norfolk-Virginia Beach; the Rev. Maurice Dawkins challenged former Virginia Gov. Charles Robb; and former Assistant Secretary of State Alan Keyes ran against Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md.

All three lost by wide margins. And ironically, all three failed to stimulate the black vote. Their white Democratic opponents received between 70 percent and 90 percent of the black vote in each race.

But overall, the candidates, who admit their party thinks of them as "unusual," made respectable show-ings: Curry and Keyes each received about 40 percent of the vote in their respective races. Dawkins received far less, about 30 percent, but no one was expected to do well against Robb's popularity.

They say the tide is turning as a growing number of blacks join the ranks of the middle class and upper-middle class.

Post-election figures from the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington showed that 9 percent of blacks identified with the Republican Party, compared to 6 percent in 1984, a 50 percent increase in four years.

"What you're seeing are the scouts in the first reconnaissance mission going out," Curry said. "Blacks are saying, we've wedded ourselves to a no-win situation."

Dawkins described the black GOP converts as the "pioneering scout in front of the wagon train."

The candidates said blacks are beginning to believe their support has been taken for granted by the Democrats and are reaping few benefits as many in rural areas and the inner cities remain trapped in poverty.

"The black leadership here does what white Democrats want them to do," Curry said. "They are slavishly devoted to the Democratic Party."

"The black voter has to see he must play two-party politics just as every ethnic group in America has," Dawkins said.

But Tim Gallagher, spokesman for Mason-Dixon Opinion Research in Columbia, Md., said blacks are still voting Democratic because the GOP "simply doesn't address the issues that appeal to blacks - housing and social programs."

Keyes, who says he ran not as a black leader but as a "leader who happens to be black," insisted that blacks owe a historical allegiance to the GOP and that the current Democratic alignment with civil rights grew out of that party's embarrassment over its past, especially in the South.

"It was their own house they were cleaning up (in the 1960s). Racism was their dirty business and they had to clean it up," he said, citing such former segregationists as Gov. George Wallace of Alabama.

Keyes also noted that blacks, as they continue to integrate, will no longer be able to vote in a solid voting mass.