The domestic political debate on President Bush's Persian Gulf policy became more sharply partisan yesterday, with Republicans claiming that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's announcement that he will release all hostages vindicated Bush's insistence on forcing the issue, while Democrats defended a more gradual approach allowing time for sanctions to work.

The split underscored the degree to which the early congressional consensus on the gulf has eroded since Bush's decision a month ago to double the size of U.S. forces in the gulf and to threaten Iraq with military retaliation for its invasion of Kuwait. Despite some efforts to mute overt partisanship, the two parties have begun advocating increasingly divergent courses of action in the biggest military showdown since Vietnam.

Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) lost no time in attempting to seize the political advantage. "While President Bush and the United Nations had the courage to force Saddam's hand," he said in a statement, "Congress sat on its hands and tried to tie the president's {hands} behind his back . . . No doubt about it, the president's policy is working. The last thing we need are any more timid signals from Congress."

On the other side, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.), an advocate of continuing the economic sanctions and delaying any resort to military force, said, "If the hostages are released, it represents the achievement of one of our major goals without the expenditure of any lives . . . which runs directly counter to what Dole is saying."

Several sources said that Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), one of the strongest Democratic supporters of the Bush policy, warned a closed-door Democratic strategy session yesterday that if the party appears to be denying support to the administration and Bush orders a January attack that results in a quick Iraqi defeat, as he considers likely, then the voters "will keep us out of the White House forever."

Solarz confirmed the thrust of his remarks, but said he had made it clear he was advocating a policy he thought best for the country -- and not just the Democratic Party.

His view was rebutted by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who told the private Democratic Leadership Council session that expert military judgment and public opinion both dictated delaying an early resort to force.

Even while echoing Nunn's arguments, some Democratic strategists conceded that they were concerned that Solarz's political judgment may be on target. Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), the newly named chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that if the freeing of the hostages is followed by an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, "the president may come out with enhanced popularity and the Democrats may be seen again as the party of peace-but-no-strength."

But Fazio said he thought last week's televised armed services committee hearings, in which a series of retired senior military officers supported Nunn's contention that sanctions should be continued for an extended period before the United States considers a military offensive against Saddam, "helped show the criticism {of administration policy} doesn't come entirely from the same group of people who learned a lesson in Vietnam they cannot unlearn."

A wide variety of other Democrats, including some from the South and some from districts with major military installations, told their colleagues at caucuses this week that their constituents were telling them to avoid hostilities over Kuwait.

Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee member, said what he and others heard at home was people saying, "Don't get us into a war."

Hamilton said that contrary to Dole's criticism, "Congress was performing its traditional function in this situation. We have our ears to the ground and we heard a lot of unease about going to war."

Most Democrats interviewed yesterday said the public dissent and the partisan differences began immediately after the midterm election, when Bush announced a doubling of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia and the Defense Department canceled the policy of rotating troops into and out of the theater.

"Doubling the force, without any prior consultation or notice to Congress and without any explanation to the American people, created concern and unease among a great many people," Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) said yesterday. While Hamilton and a few others supported the Bush decision, other influential voices across the party spectrum from Nunn to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) issued a loud dissent.

Some of it was based on policy disagreement; some, apparently, on injured institutional pride. Sources said Nunn told the Democratic Leadership Council yesterday that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak gave their parliaments more information than Bush has given Congress.

Democratic leaders rejected Dole's suggestion that Congress be called into special session to debate gulf policy and convinced Bush it would be a political mistake for him to force such a debate with no certainty that his policy would be endorsed.

Instead, hearings by several congressional committees provided a forum for critics of the policy to make their arguments before administration witnesses appeared. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who joined Dole in calling for a special session, said yesterday that Democrats "didn't want to debate policy now, because they didn't know how things would come out, so they seized on the hearings device. They've opted out because they didn't know how to handle it politically."

Lugar, who predicted further concessions by Saddam will follow the promised hostage release, said both parties "will attempt spin control" on the reasons for success, "but the president's spin is likely to have more credence."

Kirk O'Donnell, a longtime Democratic strategist, said that "if the president were to be successful, there would be a risk for the Democrats, just as there was for those who denounced the Grenada operation and then saw those freed students come home and kiss the ground."

But Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who said he expects the U.S. policy to succeed, said that "as important as it is for us not to restrict the president's ability to threaten the use of force, it is equally important for Congress to represent the country's hesitancy about using that force. We each have our role to play."

Staff researcher Bruce Brown contributed to this report.