More than two weeks ago, when the Persian Gulf was quiet, White House and Republican Party officials met in a private dining room at the Hay Adams Hotel and agreed that President Bush had been outmaneuvered and embarrassed by the Democrats in the negotiations over the budget deficit. It was time to fight back, they decided.

Yesterday Bush executed the bash-the-Democrats plan that was hatched in the hotel discussions. But with the nation now embarked on the largest U.S. military mobilization since the Vietnam War, even some of the president's strongest supporters called the move ill-timed, politically inept and doomed.

"The only saving grace," said one Republican, "is that no one will pay attention because we're in the middle of a real crisis."

Some Democrats, however, did notice and expressed bewilderment and annoyance at Bush's decision to attack them on budget issues in a lengthy opening statement at his news conference yesterday. House Budget Committee Chairman Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.) said in a statement, "In the midst of an economic and militry crisis, one might expect the president to have more important things to do than calling a press conference to make partisan attacks. Democrats have given the president the strong support he needs and deserves in this emergency; we don't see this as a time for partisanship."

That the budget meeting that brought Bush back to Washington from his Kennebunkport vacation had more to do with politics than fiscal matters was clear from the outset. Two of Bush's key budget advisers, Office of Management and Budget Director Richard G. Darman and Treasury Secretary Nicolas F. Brady, were both out of town and did not attend the session.

According to sources, the group spent only about 20 minutes on the budget, most of it to go over Bush's lengthy statement opening the news conference. Before he spoke, the White House distributed key "talking points" on the budget to GOP political operatives, and within minutes of the opening statement officials at the Republican National Committee and numerous White House-activated business groups began talking those points.

"The point of the budget meeting was the statement," said one official, "and the point of the statement was to put heat on the Democrats."

A Republican source, who said he was informed by the White House on Monday that Bush would take on the Democrats Tuesday, described himself as astonished. "I still can't believe this," he said. "This is the strategy of two weeks ago, even though we've now decided to sent a quarter-million troops 6,000 miles into the desert. They are just intent on sticking to it, even though they are shooting their bullets into their own feet."

A GOP source said that several party officials had warned the White House during the past 24 hours that the timing of the attack was wrong. The official said the case they made was that "now is the time we need bipartisan support in a situation that could go very bad very quickly. We need the Congress with us. I doubt whether you can find five people who care about this right now when the world's attention, as it should be, is on the gulf. If you're going to shoot at the Democrats, do it in September when they're here and the real budget work begins. On top of this, the whole thing looks like whining. They slam-dunk us, and we complain they aren't playing fair."

An administration official known for his uncritical loyalty to the White House said, "There are reasons for this, but no rational ones. {White House Chief of Staff John H.} Sununu is enraged they got rolled by the Democrats, and he feeds into Bush's inclinations anyway, and no one can tell them: 'Hey, things like invasions have a way of changing political strategies.' "

Charles Black, spokesman for the RNC, said he wished the president had been able to "put some heat on the Democrats earlier" but insisted that Bush had no choice but to make his case on the budget while congressional Democrats are away on vacation in their districts. "We want the voters to focus on this and tell their congressmen" to work with the president, Black said.

In his statement and later during the news conference, Bush accused the Democrats of failing to produce a proposal to deal with the budget deficit and of playing politics with the issue. "They're laughing all the way to what they think is the electoral bank," the president complained.

Bush also took a subtle swipe at Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) by specifically noting that two key House Democrats, Speaker Thomas S. Foley (Wash.) and Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), were not playing politics with the issue. Mitchell was deliberately excluded from this list, White House officicals said.

The president's remarks came when most Democratic budget bargainers were away from Washington. But from Maine, Mitchell called them "not accurate and not helpful. If there has been an abdication of responsibilities on the budget, it has been on the part of the president."

Gephardt, vacationing in Duck, N.C., issued a statement saying he was "saddened to see the president resort to partisan complaining on the budget." Gephardt blamed the deficit on "10 years of Reagan-Bush economic and fiscal policies."

Staff writers John E. Yang and Steve Mufson contributed to this report.