Republicans reacted with unwonted glee to congressional Democrats, divided and uncomfortable as they mishandled President Bush's call to war. But wiser heads in the GOP constrained their joy, fearful of the political cost when the bullets begin to fly.

The abysmal performance by Democratic leaders was enough to cheer Republican spirits, sodden after a miserable autumn of discontent. President Bush's step last Nov. 8 doubling troops in Saudi Arabia without rotation was not perceived by the Democrats as destroying the rationale for sanctions. Because congressional leaders delayed formal debate until less than a week before the Jan. 15 deadline for Saddam Hussein's withdrawal from Kuwait, dissenters risked seeming less than patriotic and being linked with left-wing freshman Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.

However, a day of reckoning may be nearing. Astute Republicans know that the margins in Congress, reflecting the public mood, are enough to declare war but not enough to fight it for long. They see salvation from either an eleventh-hour diplomatic settlement or a lightning military victory. Otherwise, short-term gain may be long-term pain for Republican fortunes.

The momentary GOP bliss stems from the demonstration that Democrats are not ready for serious presidential politics. The party's rank-and-file lawmakers grumble that their leaders should have called for a post-election debate once the president put the huge, non-rotating military force in the desert. Congress then could have examined the wisdom or folly of this course as last week's hurried proceedings could not.

That mistake was compounded by House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt two weeks ago,, when he suggested cutting off funds for U.S. troops if the president sent them to war without a congressional okay. That was a reflexive imitation of the Democratic majorities taking away weapons and ammunition for Nicaraguan contras, and it risked restoring the party's Vietnam-era image of being not quite patriotic enough.

The finishing touch was the advent of Paul Wellstone as the epitome of today's Democrat. No freshman senator in memory has been so bumptious. After importuning Vice President Dan Quayle during the swearing-in ceremony by handing him a video of a Minnesota peace meeting, Wellstone delivered one of the Senate's earliest maiden speeches ever -- a screed against war.

In the House GOP cloakroom, leaders cracked that freshman Democrats were so far to the left that the passionately progressive Rep. Barbara Boxer of California had become the model for moderation. Republicans were understandably delighted to forget bank failures and broken tax promises and wave the flag.

The ambivalence of the GOP nevertheless is personified by Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole. He returned from a visit back to Kansas two weeks ago in a gloomy mood -- about chances of ever leading a Senate majority, about economic prospects and especially about war.

In Kansas, as elsewhere, people are not ready to fight Iraq. After publicly suggesting that restoring the emir of Kuwait is not worth one American life, Dole put his shoulder to the wheel as the president's floor leader -- but not with his heart in it, say GOP senators.

Dole's heart was not where his shoulder was because of misgivings, widely felt within the Senate minority, about where Bush is leading the nation. Sen. William Cohen, a liberal Republican, is defying public opinion in Maine to support the president. But in doing so, he attacked the "disappointing, deplorable performance" of Japan and Germany in contributing to the "coalition."

Other Republicans were made uncomfortable by the central backstage role of American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, in lining up enough Democratic votes to pass the war authorization. It is bitter for GOP leaders to rely on the organization that has created so much mischief over the past generations for U.S. governments seeking an even-handed policy in the Middle East.

Many Republicans want to depict the truncated debate as proof that Wellstonian Democrats won't go to war anytime, anyplace. But Dick Gephardt is no Wellstone and no pacifist. He is seriously concerned about the viability and value of the kingdoms and sheikdoms that are upheld in the Persian Gulf with American treasure and possibly blood. Potential for that attitude to resonate through the electorate is another reason Republicans pray so devoutly that war is either averted or won quickly.