War Question Hangs Darkly over Presidential Race Most Potential Democratic Candidates Oppose War Option

Article excerpt

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. …