The Patriot missiles, precision bombing and other dazzling weaponry shown on television the past three days are powerful symbols of the new and unfamiliar factors unleashed by the Persian Gulf War that could reshape the political landscape in the next few months, with consequences for the budget debate, the Republican and Democratic parties and ultimately the 1992 election.

Although emphasizing that the Persian Gulf War is in its early stages and could suddenly change course, political figures interviewed last week said the immediate impact of the fighting was to etch into public consciousness the image of a president acting decisively and effectively over Democratic opposition.

The thrust of this view was voiced in the harshest terms by Democratic consultant David Sawyer:

"It has to do with which party is more committed to and more able to affect the security of the nation and to preserve democracy in the world . . . . When the votes were counted, the Democratic Party did not."

"With all the caveats about what might still happen, {President} Bush is a winner so far," said Democratic pollster Michael Donilon. "He could move America past the post-Vietnam distress, and that is potentially big stuff."

"What you can't help but remember," said GOP pollster Linda DiVall, is that during the Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter "we couldn't even land eight helicopters in the desert."

The possibility of future disasters and a land war that could lead to heavy casualties tempers the enthusiasm of many other Republicans. Like Bush, they caution that early military successes could set up unrealistically high expectations.

"My concern is that things are going almost too well," said Frederick Steeper, a Republican pollster. He noted that the first day of the conflict "set the yardstick for casualties to be one, making it impossible to keep up the standard."

A minority of those interviewed disputed the argument that Bush will have gained permanent advantage in 1992 if the war continues on its current course and leads to the defeat of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"A year ago, everyone said that George Bush had answered the leadership question forever by the storming of Panama, but when people voted 11 months later, no one was thinking about Panama," said Democratic consultant Geoff Garin.

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a Republican critic of the Bush administration, was highly complimentary of Bush's handling of Iraq -- "he is the first president who has learned the lesson of Vietnam, that if you fight, don't pull your punches." But, Keene added, "that's not any reason to be relaxed about 1992. Look at Winston Churchill, {the British} tossed him out right after WW II."

The war effort has, however, muted some of the criticism Bush was receiving from the right wing of his own party. House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who until recently was accusing Bush of betraying conservative principles, has experienced a wartime conversion:

"Assuming the war continues to go well -- and you can't assume anything -- George Bush will come out of this situation dramatically enhanced in prestige and respect," Gingrich said. "Once we get through the Middle East situation, we very likely will see George Bush thinking through what he wants to accomplish in creating a new domestic order at home."

Natalie Davis, a Democratic National Committee member from Alabama who teaches political science at Birmingham Southern College, was deeply impressed by the initial American success in the Persian Gulf. "You can't help but give it some thought," she said. "If it's a quick hit and we're out of there in 30 days or so, Bush will be eligible for being king."

One basis for thinking Bush will score a major political gain from the war is that it has diverted attention from the economic recession. But those whose calculations are based more on domestic conditions than foreign policy see much less long-term advantage flowing to Bush from a quick, successful war.

"I do believe that it {Bush's initial success} could make life a touch more difficult for Democrats because it reinforces an impression: that Republicans are self-confident and competent {in foreign policy} and the Democrats are cautious," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. "But that won't matter a whit if we are in a deep recession."

Democrat Mark Mellman was even more pointed: "Come November '92, people may think George Bush is the best foreign policy president we ever had, but by and large, voters may be more concerned with having the best domestic policy president we have ever had."

Yet many Democrats fear the terms of the domestic debate have been altered, at least for now. Only six months ago, before the invasion of Kuwait, the end of the Cold War had raised hopes of shifting more resources to domestic problems and moving the Pentagon away from expensive weapons systems.

"This {the display of high-tech military effectiveness} will be exhibit number one against the peace dividend," said one disheartened Democratic staff member. "The second broad effect is that it may lead to an aura of military invincibility. Thirdly, it reverses the lessons of {the Mideast wars of} '67 and '73, that you can't use high tech in the desert. There had been a developing movement towards the limits of technology, a military reform movement away from high tech into readiness, weapons that work. Just scratch that."

For now, the congressional debate over the gulf war has subsided. Both houses of Congress -- the Senate by a unanimous vote and the House with only six dissenters -- voted last week to commend Bush and support U.S. troops. What the long-range impact will be of the agonized debate two weeks ago, which culminated with the passage over the objections of the Democratic leadership of a resolution authorizing the war, is unclear.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Ronald H. Brown said it is still too early to begin considering the war in partisan terms. Congressional Democrats who voted to continue sanctions rather than going to war, he said, will not suffer politically.

"It was clear to me that the debate and the vote were votes of conscience, and now that the vote is taken, we ought to be clear that we are supportive of our men and women" in the gulf, Brown said.

But other party strategists show no reluctance in analyzing the votes in terms of the 1992 presidential race, particularly as it affects Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the center-right senator who led the fight against the Bush administration and for continued used of economic sanctions against Iraq.

Among these strategists, the most commonly held view was that Nunn had improved his prospects, because his stand against Bush gave him more legitimacy among generally liberal Democratic primary election voters.

"Nunn probably made some converts in his own party, and Republicans are really going to have to stretch to turn him into a dove," Garin said. "Nunn benefits from this, it moderates him," Greenberg said.

Republican strategists, who are much more attuned to assessing Democrats in terms of the general electorate, which is less liberal than the Democrats who vote in presidential primaries, were more critical of Nunn. "I think he's probably the biggest loser in all this," said Ed Rollins, co-chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "He has always been known as a man of great integrity with great enterprise. he should have known the capability of the military as well as anyone . . . . He looks like he backed off on this one for political purposes." More succinctly, DiVall said: "Sam Nunn is a loser."

Similarly split partisan assessments were made of the prospects of Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), who was the lone potential Democratic presidential candidate to cast his ballot in favor of the Bush in the congressional vote.

"Gore has put the conservative stamp on himself," said Greenberg, and that stamp will make it very tough for him to get through the Democratic primaries. "We've tested the conservative wing {of the Democratic Party} so many times, and it's failed all of those candidates" who thought they could mobilize it in primary elections.

Republican DiVall, in contrast, said, "if there is one Democrat who comes out a little ahead, maybe it's Al Gore."

Staff writer David S. Broder contributed to this report.