WASHINGTON -- Depending on who's talking, the congressional vote on the gulf war means everything or nothing.
It was either a defining moment in U.S. history (the Republican view) or a soon-to-be-forgotten footnote (the Democratic wish) back in January when Congress, voting mainly along party lines, authorized the use of force against Iraq.
Republicans, who regard foreign policy as their strongest issue, believe Iraq's defeat has all but guaranteed President Bush's re-election next year and set the stage for potentially significant GOP gains in House and Senate elections.
Mr. Bush himself has no intention of making the war a partisan issue, his spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, insisted the other day. But top White House aides and other Republican officials clearly are under no such constraint.
While the war was still going on, they were reminding the nation that most Democrats opposed the president's war request. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, in a fund-raising letter for the Republican senatorial committee, called them "appeasement-before-country liberals."
In the 10 days since the war ended, Republican efforts to pin the soft-on-defense label on the Democrats have gained momentum.
"I think the American people know that it's the Democrats who brought you appeasement in the gulf," Roger Ailes, Mr. Bush's campaign media adviser, said in an NBC "Today" show interview last week.
Mr. Bush's chief of staff, John H. Sununu, asked on the same program about Republican attacks against Democrats who voted their conscience on the war, said voters are "going to have to make a decision on people's records" in the 1992 election.
"I can't believe that [Democrats] are going to expect everyone to ignore the vote they cast on the most important issue this country has had to deal with in about 40 years."
Ten Senate Democrats, out of 55, and 86 House Democrats, out of 267, wound up supporting Mr. Bush, while only one Republican senator and three GOP representatives opposed him the war resolution.
Democrats maintain that Republican efforts to politicize the war will backfire. They note that, unlike Vietnam, their party closed ranks behind the administration and supported Mr. Bush's war policy once the vote was taken.
But Republicans point out that Democrats would not have hesitated to excoriate Mr. Bush if the war had turned out differently.
"If we had lost this war and we had had 20,000 casualties, wouldthey have withheld any criticism of us?" asked Mr. Fitzwater, the White House spokesman.
Leading Democrats, apparently thrown off balance by the Republicans' eager use of the war issue, are struggling to reassess their party's chances next year against Mr. Bush, whose poll ratings have been lifted to all-time record heights by his handling of the crisis.
Democrats are hardly encouraged that their party's most visible presidential possibilities of the moment include former Sen. George McGovern, whose 1972 defeat stigmatized the party as anti-military; the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, one of the most outspoken anti-war Democrats; and former Sen. Paul Tsongas, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts who last ran for office in 1978.
Most Democratic hopefuls have kept to the sidelines while the nation celebrates its gulf victory. The major exception is Sen. Albert Gore Jr., D-Tenn., whose vote to authorize force may have enhanced his attractiveness as a national candidate. The unsuccessful 1988 presidential candidate became, at least for the moment, his party's most prominent defender last week.
"Was this blood shed so Republicans could have something to talk about in television political commercials?" Mr. Gore asked, while at the same time acknowledging that the war is a legitimate political issue for Mr. Bush and the Republicans -- and presumably himself.
The rest of the 1992 Democratic possibilities in Congress votedagainst the war resolution, including Sens. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, Sam Nunn of Georgia, George J. Mitchell of Maine, Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. They could well find themselves on the defensive, analysts said, in a campaign against Mr. Bush.
Some may be more vulnerable than others, in part because of statements about the war. Mr. Gephardt, the House Democratic leader, warned, for instance, that Congress might have to "cut off funding for the war" if Mr. Bush used force without prior approval from Capitol Hill.
Even Democrats who did not have to vote may well have been hurt. New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, considered by some to be the party's front-runner for 1992, said last fall that fighting could be avoided by negotiating a deal to get Iraq out of Kuwait "for the most part" by giving them an outlet to the gulf ("a little bit on the water") and an oil field claimed by Kuwait ("a little bit of the oil").
With the election almost 20 months away, even some die-hard Bush supporters know it is too soon to say whether the postwar glow will last.
"No one knows what the shelf life's going to be on this," said a top Republican Party aide.
More than a few Democrats, however, seem ready to concede the Republicans four more years in the White House, a defeatist attitude that irritates some party officials.
"We've basically been pleading guilty since Jan. 15. Our party's whole reaction has been, 'Yes, we're guilty,' " said Anita Dunn, communications director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who will soon join Mr. Bradley's Senate staff. "I don't understand why this party throws up its white flag."
In races below the presidential level, the issue is also having an impact, though some experts doubt that it will prove decisive in the end on House and Senate contests.
"The vote is likely to have a minimal amount of impact," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of a congressional campaign newsletter. "Most members of the House and Senate have learned that providing constituent services to their districts . . . and building cultural ties to the average voter" lets them cast a few controversial votes.
However, a few Democratic senators from pro-defense Southern states who voted against the war, like North Carolina's Terry Sanford, an early, vocal opponent of U.S. involvement in the gulf, could have serious political problems, he added.
Republicans, who are predicting that the war issue will help them regain control of the Senate and gain House seats next year, are making plans to recruit returning combat veterans to run against Democrats who opposed the administration.
Meanwhile, Democrats are taking steps to try to contain any political damage. Many of those who voted against Mr. Bush, such as Mr. Sanford, went out of their way to express their support for U.S. troops later.