In polls, the American people endorse the Persian Gulf War. In Wheaton Plaza on the first weekend of combat, most endorsed it too. But as they flocked to "Dances With Wolves" or waited for one-hour photos, as they exchanged shoes or sifted the sale items at Waldenbooks, the Wheaton crowds often toted qualifiers and stresses, hesitations and fears.

Mary Goodin did.

She is happy the war's first days evidently went well. She is proud her country has been able to enlist the world to stop Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. She is amazed by the wizardry of American weapons, particularly because, in years past, none seemed to work right. So she supports what's happening. That is, she does today.

"If it turns out good, I guess I'll feel that way," said Goodin, 36, an occupational therapist from Rockville. "But if it turns into a protracted thing with lots of bloodshed . . . then I probably won't feel that way."

Ask Frankie Clayton, and he's backing this battle too. "Some say it's for oil, but you can't let a dictator dictate the future," said Clayton, 33, a mechanic from Hyattsville. "Sometimes you have to take a stand and just get him out of there. We hate to see countries being taken over. We look out for countries that are small."

But then ask Frankie Clayton another question, one that he repeats: "How I am going to feel when the casualties start coming in? I'm going to feel we should never have started the war. Everybody, I think, wants to feel that way. Everybody wants a war you can win without a lot of casualties."

In lengthy interviews with 25 residents picked unscientifically as they went about their business at the plaza in Montgomery County on Friday and Saturday, the Persian Gulf War emerged as far more than a simple yes-or-no issue, one generating complex emotions and undercurrents.

Clearly, the war has mesmerized Washingtonians. Images of Israeli mothers putting gas masks on their children during Iraqi missile attacks have burrowed deep, as have the stunning black-and-white videotapes of American bombs sailing into targets. Residents talk knowingly of Scud missiles, ground warfare and the intricacies of the anti-Iraq coalition.

And George Bush need not issue any cautions: There is little euphoria over the apparent early success of the United States and little belief this is a cakewalk like the incursion in Panama. There are, instead, worries about what the war could do to a region of the world that always seems so confusing, and there are fears the success is illusory because Iraq has some reason for not hitting back yet.

Further, even those most committed to the conflict know that casualties will come if the air campaign against Iraq gives way to a ground assault. Once the war produces more of what wars always do -- dead -- at least some support seems certain to fade, a phenomenon of other American wars and one suggested by public opinion sampling in this war.

At Wheaton Plaza, in short, backing for this conflict was broad, but it was not always deep.

"I know my thoughts are going to change dramatically when the death toll goes up," said Harriet Segar, 37, a lawyer who lives in the District and had come to work out at a health club. "I know so much is going to happen that I'm kind of on hold."

"If you can have it over with without anybody being killed, that'd be great," said Mindy Herbert, 30, a dental assistant from White Oak who was sitting with her 4-month-old son, Frankie. She paused. "But that'll never happen."

Women, especially, seem torn. Margaret Mulligan, 42, a homemaker from Silver Spring, was listening to her daughter, Becky, 15, as she explained what the war was all about while the two sat on a mall bench.

"You know Hitler?" said Becky. "We're supposed to learn from our past. Well, Hitler signed an agreement in Munich that he wouldn't take over more land. Well, in less than a year he took more land. Sometimes, you have to fight sooner or later, and it's better to fight now."

Her mother was nodding her head. "The aggression is there," she said, referring to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. But then she wondered out loud if the war would be long, if it was worth dying for oil, if there would be terrorism in the United States and how the war would be finished. In the end, she could not decide about the war.

She added: "I told my husband the other day that I think men support this because men like to dress up and carry guns and they like to fight. I'll fight. I'll defend my family against anything. But you really have to push me."

Those who back the war do so, in part, for reasons tinged with patriotism and a benevolent view of their country. Even though Kuwait is on the other side of the globe and of radically different culture, they want to save it, because that's what America's all about. America defends the little guy.

"Need help? Go see the U.S.," said Beverly Robertson, 32, a paralegal from Takoma Park who was eating lunch in the mall's food court with her husband, Darryl. "It's like you break the glass on an alarm and there's a number inside to call the United States . . . . The U.S. gives aid to so many countries for so many things. Why shouldn't we help? We help. It's almost like we're the Red Cross of the world."

Most acknowledge that a less noble reason -- America's interest in Middle East oil -- is at stake as well. But they cite other factors.

Repeatedly, Bush has portrayed Saddam as a new Adolf Hitler. That image now has a deep hold on many, who describe a man they have never met as crazy, egomaniacal, suicidal. Their animosity is not aimed at Iraqis, just their leader.

Such a man must be stopped, they said, before he becomes a greater threat to others -- even the United States.

"He's trying to eat up all of the Middle East for power and wealth," said Gary Jenkins, 44, who works at Montgomery Ward's auto center at the mall and whose son is a Marine in the gulf. "I'm looking to the future. If they allow Hussein to get stronger, he'll eventually have nuclear capability, he'll have the capability to shoot missiles over here. It would be another Pearl Harbor here."

Trying to stop him has left many filled with awe at the precision and power of American weapons. There was pride and relief that this expertise seemed to enable the United States to fight a clean war, limiting the killing of Iraqi civilians.

"We're always hearing that the technology is so sick, but I was watching that videotape with the general {in Saudi Arabia} with the missiles hitting things, and I'm amazed," said Roy Wirick, 34, a horticulturist from Frederick, Md. "They test all these things in the desert in Nevada and they go ka-plunky. But here, it works."

There was also satisfaction that, in contrast to views of the U.S. effort in Vietnam, America was not waging war "half-assed," as Darryl Robertson put it, but seemed to be going all-out to end the conflict quickly. Charlie McMullen, 58, a retired businessman from Silver Spring, said he "had sometimes felt we were a nation without backbone, fat and lazy . . . {but} I couldn't be prouder than I am right now. It just shows there are a lot of people with backbone."

But there also was support that seemed to exist only because the war had started. These people were unhappy the war began; they wanted more time for economic sanctions or more time for negotiations. But once there was shooting, they saw no choice but to rally around their country.

Jean West, for one. A 73-year-old retired teacher from Bethesda, she doesn't think it's America's business to ride to the salvation of every beleaguered place. "You can't save everybody," she said. But with war underway, she said, she is with the president: "I think we'll have to go to the end."

David Harvey, 39, of Silver Spring, who works for the Department of Agriculture, said that although "it was a naked act of aggression against Kuwait," he would have liked more time. "Everything involved with the war is fearful. There's people dying as we speak."

Perhaps the most unhappy person of all was Sherry Hubbard. She had come to the mall just to get out of the house, she said, just to get away from TV broadcasts that seemed too pro-war. It was making her "insane," she said, and even causing her to momentarily jump on the support bandwagon.

"I'd have these fleeting thoughts that maybe we should go in and bomb them," said Hubbard, 43, a homemaker from Takoma Park. "But no. I'm thoroughly ashamed . . . . I do feel sorry for the people of Kuwait. But we should mind our own business."