THE Persian Gulf debate could now spill into the 1992 presidential race, especially if war with Iraq causes heavy American casualties. Most Democrats on Capitol Hill strenuously fought efforts to give President Bush the power to go to war. Republicans generally supported the war option.
Leading the Democratic resistance were Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia and House majority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, both prominently mentioned as potential White House candidates in '92.
Although Mr. Bush narrowly won the struggle in Congress, the bulk of Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill was lined up against him, including several people besides Senator Nunn and Mr. Gephardt who might like his job - Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. of Delaware, and Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.
Outside Capitol Hill, other leading Democrats also took shots at Bush's move toward war, especially his insistence that he could make war without congressional approval.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson warned earlier that ``if Mr. Bush unilaterally disregards the role of Congress in this deliberative process, he must face the challenge of impeachment.''
And in New York state, Gov. Mario Cuomo, another possible '92 Democratic presidential candidate, scoffed at Bush's previous claims that he could go to war without authority from Congress.
However, two other Democrats with possible designs on the White House, Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia and Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, supported the president.
Depending on the outcome in the Gulf, the die seems cast for sharp clashes in next year's campaigns - first, in the Democratic primaries, then in the general election.
The forthrightness of Democratic opposition to a Gulf war indicates that the party is stiffening its resolve after years of suffering from its ``soft on defense'' image at the polls.
McGovern hurt Democrats on war
Ever since 1972, when George McGovern led Democrats to one of their worst defeats with his opposition to the Vietnam War, the party has taken a beating among voters on defense issues.
But Nunn, a strong advocate of defense, provided Democrats with both intellectual firepower and ideological cover to resist the president's rush toward the war option after Jan. 15.
``President Bush, Congress, and the American people are united that [Saddam Hussein] must leave Kuwait,'' Nunn told his colleagues. ``We differ on whether these goals can best be accomplished by administering pain slowly with an economic blockade, or by dishing it out in large does with military power.''
Either way, Nunn says, the US wins. But with the blockade, he adds, the US could possibly win without the loss of life on either side.
Democrat after Democrat picked up that theme.
Mr. Bentsen, usually a self-described ``hawk,'' told the Senate: ``If we go to war, the estimate is we'll be spending an additional $1 billion to $2 billion a day. And that's with all of our deficit problems, with a recession in our country, with unemployment going up.''
He said: ``Most experts believe that [economic sanctions] will work with time, and the estimates range all the way from 12 to 18 months.'' What the United States needs, he said, is patience.
Gephardt explained: ``The tough measures we have already taken have stopped the Iraqi war machine dead in its tracks, and Saudi Arabia is still sovereign as a result. The hostages are free. The world supply of oil is plentiful and the price is stabilized.
``Sanctions are powerful tools and they are achieving our objectives without the further loss of American life,'' he said.
Bradley: war only if necessary
Senator Bradley noted that there are really three choices: sanctions, immediate war, or sanctions with war at a later time, if necessary. The last is his choice, and the Democratic choice, because it costs ``less in terms of Americans lives and dollars than would a massive military invasion that cost thousands of American lives, billions of additional taxpayer dollars, and endangers our long-term vital interests in the region.''
Mrs. Schroeder also opposes war now because, she argues, the nation isn't ready for it. ``First you commit the nation and then you commit the troops,'' she told the House. The president has raced ahead of public opinion, she contends.
But not every Democrat with an eye on the Oval Office agrees.
Senator Robb emerged from the debate as the most hawkish of this group. He not only supported Bush, he was a cosponsor of the war resolution.
Robb said Bush's decision in November to double US troop strength in Saudi Arabia made other questions about the war option ``moot.''
He elaborated: ``The additional troops are on the scene, or soon will be.... To give even the appearance of tying the president's hands at this late date would send the wrong message to Saddam Hussein....''
Senator Gore was less adamant. Though he supported the war option, he admitted the costs could be ``horrendous.'' He concluded:
``I hope [force] will not be used. I'm afraid that it will be.''