THREE men, standing around the potato bin at the local Safeway, are discussing possible war with Iraq: ``How long do you think it would take to finish 'em off?'' asks one.
``Maybe a month.''
``No, I was in the military. I'd say a week.''
``Less than a day!'' exclaims the third man, and they all laugh.
Americans, prodded by the White House, appear ready to make war on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his armies, and they often seem cocky about the outcome.
But experts on public attitudes warn that any war in the Persian Gulf must be quick, and relatively painless, or support in the United States could rapidly wither.
The Washington Post and ABC News this week published a nationwide survey that illustrated this country's weak stomach for a bloody conflict. When Americans were asked if they would support a war to oust Iraq from Kuwait after the Jan. 15 deadline imposed by the United Nations Security Council, 63 percent said yes.
But when asked whether they would back US involvement if it meant 1,000 American troops would be killed, support plunged to 44 percent, with 53 percent opposed, the Post/ABC poll reported. And if US casualties rose to 10,000 dead, only 35 percent would favor use of the American military.
Yet a number of military analysts have warned that a land, sea, and air war against Iraq could result in as many as 10,000 American troops killed, if things go badly.
For that reason, analysts like John Mueller at the University of Rochester and Stephen Hess at the Brookings Institution caution that President Bush must not get bogged down in a long, costly war with Iraq.
Larry Hugick, an analyst for the Gallup Organization, says if the fighting extends beyond a few months, ``there is no evidence that there's going to be a lot of staying power [with the public]. But initially there will be a rallying effect'' if shots are fired.
Previous wars lasted much longer than that. World War II extended more than three years. So did the Korean War. Vietnam lasted nearly a decade. But analysts say that this time, Bush has a much narrower time frame - probably less than a year.
Why? Dr. Mueller, who has studied public opinion during America's wars, says two things are different in the Persian Gulf.
First, Americans believed that earlier wars, particularly World War II, presented a serious threat to the security of the United States itself. Similarly, Korea and Vietnam were seen as wars that were necessary to halt the spread of communism, which was backed by a nuclear-armed Soviet Union which also threatened US security.
The effect of all three wars on American public opinion was ``visceral,'' Mueller says. The public felt that the nation must fight, or possibly lose its freedom.
There is no such gut response against Iraq. Most Americans don't feel personally threatened by Saddam Hussein.
The second difference is that this time, there seems to be an acceptable, alternative course of action besides war.
Back in 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, or in 1950, when North Korean troops overran South Korea, it was fight - or else. Feelings in this country and in the Congress were virtually unanimous on the need for war.
This time, there appears to be a choice: Fight, or continue to enforce sanctions, which might achieve the same goals as a war, but without casualties, Mueller explains.
Already, sanctions and the US military presence in the Gulf have achieved two out of three major American objectives. They have protected Saudi Arabia (and its oil), and they have freed the hostages.
The only remaining goal is the liberation of Kuwait. And according to the latest New York Times/CBS poll, released Wednesday, 47 percent of Americans want to ``wait longer to see if the trade embargo and other economic sanctions work,'' while 46 percent think that after Jan. 15, it will be time to attack Iraqi forces.
That public division of opinion is reflected in Congress, where many members, including the Democratic leaders, are counseling patience, while many Republicans and some Democrats are urging military action.
If fighting breaks out, Mr. Hess at Brookings says ``Americans want a short, decisive war, with as few casualties as possible, which is exactly what George Bush is promising them. It is `read my lips' stuff. If we strike, it will be massively.''
Though Bush takes real political risks with war, Hess notes the president gets strong support from two-thirds of the public on his handling of the crisis.
That ``is quite an accomplishment for a guy who, we are told, is no communicator. He has already won the battle of domestic communication,'' Hess says.