While public attention has focused on President Bush's anguish over the Civil Rights Bill of 1990, the legislation highlights one of the difficulties Democratic presidential candidates have experienced in trying to maintain the support of blacks as well as working- and lower-middle-class whites.

"In the long run, the bill could place us in the position once again of choosing between loyal blacks and Reagan Democrats," one Democratic congressional strategist said. "It depends on how the bill plays out and, if it becomes law, how much it is seen as forcing racial preferences."

"It {the 1990 bill} is not a free lunch for the Democrats," said Robert Beckel, a Democratic political strategist who, as manager of Walter F. Mondale's 1984 campaign, experienced the full brunt of the defection of once-loyal white Democrats. "It's in the best interests of the Democrats to have Bush sign this bill" to prevent the GOP from "playing the race card," he said.

"Democrats are trying to say to the middle class, 'We care about you. You are our primary comcern,' " said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. "What affirmative action says is that poor people, disadvantaged minorities, have primacy. That limits the ability of the Democrats to be credible as the party that works for the middle class."

In a series of focus groups held in 1985 in Macomb County -- white, working-class suburbs of Detroit once dominated by the Democratic Party -- Greenberg found a deep hostility to a Democratic Party seen as favoring blacks. "The special status of blacks is perceived by almost all these individuals as a serious obstacle to their personal advancement," Greenberg said of his findings from the focus groups. "Indeed, discrimination against whites has become a well-assimilated and ready explanation of their status, vulnerability and failures."

Democratic pollster Ed Reilly found similar racial conflict, also working to the severe disadvantage of the Democratic Party, in a post-1988 election study. And in the current election, the opening salvo in the bid of Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) for the governorship is an attempt to portray Democratic nominee Diane Feinstein as an advocate of racial quotas.

Voters who are moved by the issues of affirmative action and quotas, Beckel said, "are the swing voters, the Central Valley in California, the white working class, the working-class suburbs of Oakland County."

As passed by the Senate and sent to the House last week, the civil rights measure would effectively set federal employment discrimination and affirmative action policy so as to strengthen the hand of employees claiming discrimination. Proponents contend that the measure would not prompt business to hire on the basis of quotas, the charge leveled by some administration officials, conservative groups and much of the business community.

Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman, while arguing that the bill does not pose significant liabilities for the Democratic Party, said Bush has gained control of "the definition of the bill. Any bill he signs will be a civil rights bill and any bill he vetos will be a quota bill."

Polls show blacks and whites are severely divided on the questions of quotas, preferential hiring and special government intervention in behalf of blacks. "When we hold focus groups, if the issue of affirmative action comes up, you can forget the rest of the session. That's all that's going to get talked about," said Natalie Davis, an Alabama Democratic national committeewoman and pollster.

"There is a perception on the part of whites -- working-class whites, ethnic groups, white southerners -- that the Democratic Party is the party of the blacks," Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who is black, said in an earlier interview. "I think there is in some cases a perception that blacks are taking jobs away . . . making it impossible for white males, working-class whites, to advance, to be promoted."

For blacks, Lewis said, affirmative action "is important. In the black community, people are not prepared to throw that chip in. . . . When it comes to the black community, it's not negotiable."

In private, a number of Democratic strategists noted that the issues of affirmative action and racial preference embodied in the complex language of the 1990 bill have the potential to split the presidential and congressional wings of the Democratic Party.

House Democrats can generally avoid racially polarizing issues by declaring support for civil rights, a position widely backed by the public, one strategist noted. Democratic presidential candidates and the national party, in contrast, are more closely associated with racial preferences and consequently have more to lose from legislative conflicts that draw sharp distinctions between the parties on these issues, he said.

Lewis, a former civil rights leader, described the political problem of affirmative action this way:

"Whites perceive it as a less-qualified black, woman or some other minority getting a position or advancing to a certain level, not because of qualification, but simply because of race -- that it is taking something away from them. I think black voters see it as affirming, as compensating for the wrongs of the past, and that is something that society must do. It is a moral obligation."