A month ago, the United States appeared headed for a shooting war with Iraq, but war fever has given way to a tedious waiting game in the Saudi desert. Nevertheless, Americans still express overwhelming support of the U.S. military buildup despite growing concern about how long it will last and how much it will cost.

According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, public approval of the Persian Gulf initiative remains strong, with 81 percent of Americans expressing overall approval of President Bush's decision to send U.S. troops to defend Saudi Arabia against a threatened invasion by Iraq.

"There is strong support for the president but a lot of questions," Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.) said. "They {voters} are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt now, but how long will the patience of the American people last?" He said Bush must address this question and others in his speech to Congress and the nation tonight.

In interviews over the last five days, Washington Post reporters and special correspondents discussed the gulf crisis with opinion leaders and citizens from different areas of the country and with members of Congress returning from their districts after the summer recess.

Amid general support for Bush's handling of the crisis, there was growing concern about the duration of the U.S. commitment and its cost.

There is also a conviction among their constituents, lawmakers said, that U.S. allies should contribute more to the buildup.

"It's kind of moved from flag-waving to pocketbook-tapping," Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) said. "There is clearly much more emphasis on the dollars and cents part. . . . They realize we are there one more time holding the bag."

On the question of whether U.S. military forces should remain permanently in the Middle East, the Post-ABC poll found public opinion divided, with 46 percent of those interviewed favoring a permanent U.S. presence, while 52 percent disagreed. The remainder expressed no opinion.

There was, however, no such indecision on the subject of allies' helping to foot the multibillion-dollar cost of the deployment. Eighty-nine percent of those polled said U.S. allies should pay "at least part of the costs" of transporting and maintaining troops in the gulf.

"If we're there, all the other countries should be there, especially if people say this {Iraqi President Saddam Hussein} is the next Hitler," said Jean Rasler, 60, a retired dairy farmer from Greenville, Ill. "The United States should not have to pay for this out of our pocket so the rest of the world can sleep easy."

Members of Congress reported similar views from all parts of the country. "The most negative question you hear is why our allies aren't doing more," Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said. "They ask: Where are the French? Where are the Japanese?" He said Mississippi voters are "not happy" with Bush's decision Aug. 31 to forgive Egypt's $7.1 billion debt. "They don't feel we should be paying them for doing what they should be doing in the first place."

Discontent about details of the gulf buildup, however, has not dampened Americans' overall enthusiasm for the venture, with support standing at 81 percent of those polled. Just 18 percent in the survey of 1,011 randomly selected adults disapproved, while the remainder had no opinion. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The results suggested that support for the gulf buildup is growing. Slightly more than a month ago, 74 percent of those questioned in a Post-ABC poll approved of sending U.S. troops.

"The support here is rabid," said Carole Arnold, a talk show host on KTOK in Oklahoma City. Calls on her three-hour morning radio show overwhelmingly approve Bush's actions, she said, adding, "It has not let down at all. In fact, there is more support than ever."

The poll also found that support may be increasing among some segments of the population initially opposed to the buildup. A month ago, a majority of blacks questioned -- 57 percent -- disapproved of Bush's decision to send troops. In recent weeks, however, black opinion appears to have shifted dramatically, with 63 percent of blacks interviewed in the current survey expressing support for Bush.

But black support, like white support, carries questions. "I think the longer they {troops} stay there, the more community opinion is going to waver," said Ed Turley, a community and youth activist in central Los Angeles. "I think public opinion is going to change real soon. Yes, we need to secure our international interests, but look what's happening here at home."

With the economy and the budget deficit dominating domestic politics, many voters see the gulf crisis as a pocketbook issue, Rep. Rod Chandler (R-Wash.) said.

"I don't think they care one whit about Kuwait," Chandler said. "It's the oil supply that has their interest." His state's wheat growers, he said, also are watching the gulf, concerned that the crisis will crimp a state economy particularly dependent on exports.

"If we'd asked Central Casting for a villain, they'd have sent Saddam Hussein." said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Vietnam prisoner of war and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said that he found strong support in Arizona for the gulf policy but that veterans particularly told him to tell Bush that, "if we're going to do it, do it right this time," an obvious reference to Vietnam. "There's a real fear of a war of attrition," he added.

In Portland, Ore., sentiment against the military buildup was more general. Robert Landauer, editorial page editor of the Oregonian newspaper, reported "a continuing high level of skepticism" regarding the gulf crisis.

Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.) said phone calls in his Portland district have been running "36 to 1" against gulf involvement since the third week of the crisis. "Oregonians have always been politically averse to foreign military adventures," he said. "Talking to some other members {of Congress}, this position seems to be something of an anomaly."

While the survey results showed that Americans are lukewarm about a permanent U.S. military commitment in the gulf, 75 percent of those polled said U.S. forces should remain there until Iraq withdraws from Kuwait, "even if it means keeping American forces there for many months or even years," as one question stated. That is an increase from 63 percent in the Post-ABC poll immediately after Bush announced the buildup.

Most Americans also said they expect the United States to go to war with Iraq eventually, a sentiment expressed by 65 percent of those questioned, an increase from 60 percent in last month's survey. If war breaks out, the public also continues to believe that it will be short. Only 34 percent said such a war would "last for a long time, a year or more" while 63 percent said it would end quickly.

Americans reacted cautiously to the prospect of war, preferring that Iraq fire the first shot. According to the survey, only 21 percent believe that the "United States should strike Iraq militarily before Iraq has a chance to attack American forces first." In contrast, 75 percent said the United States should not attack Iraq "unless Iraq attacks American forces first."

The public also remains divided about whether the United States should invade Iraqi-occupied Kuwait, with 48 percent favoring such a move and 46 percent opposed. Last month, 38 percent of those interviewed favored such an invasion.

"I would not say it's a war fever, but people ask if you think it means war," Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) said. "They ask it soberly. I say it may well mean war, and there was no great outcry of 'no, no!' "

The public, however, continues to strongly support current policies designed to defend Saudi Arabia and measures to force Iraq out of Kuwait. Of those polled, 79 percent said they would continue to support the economic embargo against Iraq "even if it results in massive famine in Iraq."

But the public remains uneasy about whether the blockade will work. Fifty-one percent of respondents said they thought the economic blockade will force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, while 46 percent disagreed.

The survey found that the gulf crisis has become the country's top concern, with 22 percent naming it as the nation's single biggest problem, followed by drugs, listed by 16 percent.

"They're not getting bored with it, it's the number one asked question," Rep. Dennis E. Eckart (D-Ohio) said. His constituents realized "the seriousness of it," he said, when the Bush administration began calling up reservists. "About the only questions being asked are who's paying for it and are our allies going to continue to be our allies."

But Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), cochairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, said South Dakota was sending him "a lot of mixed signals. The farther you get from the initial response, the greater the uncertainty about the reason for our being there."

While most of his constituents support U.S. policy, Daschle said, "they are going to have to be convinced that the sanctions are working" in order to sustain a long commitment without military action, and "they're going to have to be convinced that the stakes are high enough to warrant military intervention."

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) said Marylanders are willing to wait. "As Americans, we tend to be sprinters and not long-distance runners. But a sprint may be costly in terms of lives, while going the longer distance may achieve the goal at less cost. I think people realize this."

Q. Do you approve or disapprove of the way George Bush is handling the situation caused by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait?

.................... Sep. 9 ...... Aug. 20

Approve ............... 78% .......... 75%

Disapprove ............ 18 ........... 21

Don't know ............. 4 ............ 4

Q. Do you think that the allies of the United States should or should not help pay at least part of the costs of military operations in the Middle East?

............................ Sep. 9

Should help pay ............... 89%

Should Not help pay ........... 10

Don't know ..................... 1

Q. Do you approve or disapprove of Bush's decision to send U.S. military forces to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf?

................... Sept. 9 ...... Aug. 20 ...... Aug. 8

Approve .............. 81% .......... 80% ......... 74%

Disapprove ........... 18 ........... 19 .......... 25

Don t know ............ 1 ........... 1 ........... 1

Q. Do you agree or disagree that the United States should take all action necessary, including the use of military force, to make sure that Iraq withdraws its forces from Kuwait?

................... Sept. 9 ...... Aug. 20 ...... Aug. 8

Agree ................. 75% .......... 76% ......... 66%

Disagree .............. 22 ........... 20 .......... 33

Don't know ............. 3 ............ 4 ........... 1

Q. Should the United States keep military forces in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf until Iraq withdraws its troops from Kuwait, even if it means keeping American forces there for many months or even years?

................... Sept. 9 ...... Aug. 20 ...... Aug. 8

Yes ................... 75% .......... 74% ......... 63%

No .................... 23 ........... 22 .......... 33

Don't know ............. 2 ............ 4 ........... 4

Q. Would you favor or oppose invading Kuwait to force out Iraq, even if it meant risking war with Iraq?

................... Sept. 9 ...... Aug. 20 ...... Aug. 8

Favor ................. 48% .......... 45% ......... 38%

Oppose ................ 46 ........... 46 .......... 58

Don't know ............. 6 ............ 9 ........... 4

Q. Just your best guess, do you think the United States is going to get involved in a war with Iraq?

................... Sept. 9 ...... Aug. 20 ...... Aug. 8

Yes ................... 65% .......... 66% ......... 60%

No ................... 32 ........... 29 .......... 38

Don't know ............. 3 ............ 5 ........... 2

Q. Do you think a war between the United States and Iraq would be a relatively short war lasting a few weeks or months or do you think such a war would last for a long time, a year or more?

................... Sept. 9 ...... Aug. 20

Short war ............. 63% .......... 61%

Long war ............... 34 .......... 35

Don't know .............. 3 ........... 4

Q. I'm going to read some statements and after each please tell me whether you agree or disagree with it: The United States should keep its military forces in the Middle East on a permanent basis even if Iraq withdraws from Kuwait to make sure Iraq causes no more trouble in the region in future years

................... Sept. 9

Agree ................. 46%

Disagree .............. 52

Don't know ............. 2

Q. Would you say that the Soviet Union is helping or hurting the chances of a settlement of the situation caused by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait?

............................ Sept. 9

Helping chances ................ 63%

Hurting chances ................ 19

Somewhere in between ............ 5

No effect ....................... 4

Don't know ...................... 9

September figures are based on a Washington Post-ABC News telephone survey of 1,011 randomly selected adults nationwide conducted Sept. 6-9. Aug. 20 figures are based on an ABC News poll of 815 randomly selected adults nationwide conducted Aug. 17-20. Aug. 8 figures are based on a Washington Post-ABC News survey of 769 randomly selected adults conducted Aug. 8. Margin of sampling error for the September results is plus or minus 3 percentage points, it is plus or minus 4 percentage points for the August polls. Sampling error is, however, only one of many potential sources of error in these or any other public opinion polls. Interviewing for these surveys was conducted by Chilton Research Services of Radnor, Pa.