The movement against the Persian Gulf War, which demonstrated its ability this weekend to mobilize a politically narrow but numerically impressive base of opposition against the war, won a series of friendly nods yesterday from the Bush administration.

The respectful comments from the administration -- including praise of dissent from President Bush himself -- marked a striking departure from the pattern of hostility between the anti-war movement and Richard Nixon's administration during the Vietnam War.

They also contrasted with recent criticism of anti-war Democrats by Republican National Chairman Clayton Yeutter and of the media's coverage of anti-war protests by Vice President Quayle. Aides said yesterday's remarks reflect the president's desire, expressed even before the war started, to play down domestic division.

"We are at the 80th percentile in terms of support," said one administration official, "so why argue with the remaining 20 percent?"

Organizers of Saturday's anti-war demonstrations here expressed satisfaction at the level of anti-war sentiment and pledged to turn next to stepped-up organizing at the local level, aimed at a new series of locally based demonstrations in mid-February.

At the same time, the organizers said they accepted the general finding of a Washington Post poll of demonstrators. The poll found that the marchers -- estimated at 75,000 by police and at 250,000 by the organizers -- were mainly people who had long been committed to left-of-center and anti-war causes.

"We did mobilize our base," said Leslie Cagan, coordinator of the National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East, which organized the march. The campaign's plan to highlight a series of local actions around the country for February 15-16, she said, was aimed at giving a broader segment of the public a chance to demonstrate opposition to the war. Bonnie Garvin, communications coordinator for the campaign, said that teach-ins designed to convert the neutral would also be part of the new phase of anti-war action.

But Garvin argued that the movement's success in bringing large numbers to Washington should not be denigrated simply because so many of the marchers had long histories of dissent. According to the Post poll, nine out of 10 demonstrators had attended a protest action before.

"Mobilizing the base is not an insignificant thing because it tells you there is a base," Garvin said, "It took us five years in the Vietnam War to build a base."

Cagan said talks were underway to heal the rifts among left-wing groups involved in the anti-war movement that led to the calling of two separate demonstrations in Washington this month.

For its part, the administration was careful yesterday to give dissent its due.

"I know -- of course I know -- that some disagree with the course that I've taken," President Bush told a meeting of religious broadcasters here yesterday. "And I have no bitterness in my heart about that at all, no anger. I am convinced that we are doing the right thing. And tolerance is a virtue, not a vice."

At his daily White House briefing, Marlin Fitzwater, the president's chief spokesman, separated himself from comments by Quayle charging that the press had paid to much attention to the anti-war forces. "I think the coverage has been fine," he said.

"There were peace marches of all kinds around the country for various purposes and causes," Fitzwater said. "We think those are all entirely appropriate. It seems to us that a very reasonable debate has taken place around the country, and we still believe support for the war is very high."

The administration official, who insisted on anonymity, said the White House had given "specific guidance" to those who spoke for it "not to appear shrill, not to question anybody's motives, but to give a benign nod to the anti-war movement."

The decision to smother the protest movement with kindness was seen by both its friends and foes as a conscious break from the Johnson and, particularly, the Nixon years.

"Since the administration seems intent on waging this war in the opposite way from Vietnam, and since the administration during Vietnam attacked the anti-war movement, {Bush administration officials} seem intent on being remorselessly gentle on the anti-war demonstrators and their constitutional rights," said Tony Blankley, press secretary to House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)

Todd Gitlin, a sociologist from the University of California at Berkeley who is both a sympathizer and a critic of the anti-war movement, said that the administration's approach to protest could "represent some streak of simple decency."

But he added that its decision to avoid division could also reflect the lessons of Vietnam. "Maybe it's a recognition that if things get polarized and increasingly confrontational, it will convince people in authority that the war is not worth the domestic cost," Gitlin said. He added that such a calculus helped erode support among Establishment figures for the Vietnam War.

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said the administration's decision not to attack the anti-war movement also reflected differences between the public image of the current protest movement and the image of anti-Vietnam protestors, who were "perceived as being radicalized and perceived as being for the enemy -- the Viet Cong."

"The anti-war movement this time has generally been careful not to be seen as embracing the enemy," he added. "If for some reason it were perceived to be embracing Saddam Hussein, that would make the movement exceedingly unpopular and the administration would not be able to resist attacking it."

Gitlin said the movement's popularity would depend on whether its members are primarily concerned with expressing anger or with pursuading the uncertain.

"The debate now is between purely expressive politics and trying to witness to one's beliefs in a demoonstrative way," he said, "or, on the other hand, trying to collect people who aren't yet convinced."