The new head of the Republican Party has touched off the first round of partisan politics over support for the Persian Gulf War by suggesting that Democrats will be held accountable for voting against the resolution authorizing President Bush to initiate hostilities with Iraq.

The White House, which until yesterday had successfully avoided any disputes with Democrats over the war, sought to defuse the controversy. "We don't believe that the gulf conflict is a partisan issue," said presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. "On the other hand, it is and will be noted, I'm sure, that there was a certain partisanship about the way the votes were cast."

He added that "these people voted their conscience," but the battle lines had already been drawn. Earlier in the week, Clayton Yeutter, who will be officially elected chairman of the Republican National Committee today, told reporters in Lincoln, Neb., that Democratic votes against the resolution two weeks ago granting Bush authority to go to war will be "a very significant factor" in 1992 elections for House, Senate and presidency.

Referring to Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), a Vietnam War veteran who voted against the resolution and is considered a possible 1992 presidential candidate, as well as other unidentified Democrats, Yeutter said: "Americans do not share the negative and depressed viewpoints of Sen. Kerrey and others."

Yeutter's remarks elicited a furious response from Kerrey, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and Democratic National Committee Chairman Ronald H. Brown. The White House efforts to take the edge off the dispute were themselves undercut with the disclosure of a fund-raising letter sent out by the National Republican Senatorial Committee over the signature of Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), committee chairman.

Asking for contributions of $1,000, the Gramm letter declared: "demonstrations in the streets are trying to destroy every shred of public confidence in President Bush's effort to stop a dangerous Middle East madman. . . . And behind these appeasement-before-country liberals are the same well-heeled gang of big government special-interest groups. . . . You and I must help President Bush defeat these 'wolves in sheep's clothing.' "

Wendy Burnley, NRSC committee spokeswoman, said, "I don't think it's a stretch of any kind to say that a lot of the groups who find themselves against the war in the Middle East are often most closely aligned with Democrats to the left than to people in the Republican Party."

At his daily session with reporters, Foley said: "Any effort to make the decision on war a political issue is unwise. . . . I think his {Yeutter's} judgment has deserted him on this particular statement."

Brown was harsher. "At a time when American men and women are risking their lives," he said, "it's a disgrace that some are playing petty partisan politics, trying to divide our country, and jockeying for political advantage."

Kerrey said in a speech on the Senate floor that Yeutter's comments "are deeply troubling. . . . They attempt to politicize this war and to define victory in terms of electoral gain rather than policy achievements."

Yesterday, as RNC members gathered here for their semiannual meeting, Yeutter sought to take some of the edge off his remarks, without backing down.

"I never challenged anyone's patriotism," he said. "I simply said the American public will hold members of Congress accountable for their votes. . . . It seems to me that is rather obvious, that is the way a democratic society works. But this is not politicization, or in any way challenging anyone's patriotism." He declined to say whether the RNC will use the congressional votes in campaign material.

Meanwhile, an RNC committee yesterday crushed a bid by insurgent conservatives to win approval of a statement calling for the resignation of budget director Richard G. Darman.

Morton Blackwell, an RNC member from Virginia and cosponsor of the resolution, contended that Darman "is the personification of the {budget} deal" that resulted in Bush breaking his "no new taxes" promise last year and severely damaged the party.

Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.