The Republicans set out yesterday to make the Democrats pay the price for Saddam Hussein's defeat.

Moving quickly to capitalize on the surge of support for President Bush's successful handling of the Persian Gulf War, Sen. Phil Gramm (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the opposition to the war expressed by most congressional Democrats before the start of hostilities would be a powerful tool to build support for Republicans across the country.

Gramm said the early January vote "fits a pattern that is 20 years old. It is so damaging because it is exactly in the pattern of Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. It says to the nation once again that Democrats cannot be trusted to define the destiny of America."

Democratic National Chairman Ronald H. Brown called the Gramm statement "ridiculous," and said it would be rejected by "fair-minded voters." While praising Bush's war leadership, Brown said "the fact the war has ended quickly gives us more time to get back to a domestic agenda and that's to the Democrats' advantage."

The dispute also flared in the House of Representatives, where Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) said that if critics of defense spending "had their way, Saddam Hussein would be astride the Middle East like a conqueror." House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) argued that "without Democratic support, none of these {weapon} systems could be developed and financed."

A variety of analysts in both parties said that the clear boost toward reelection Bush gained from the biggest U.S. military victory in two generations could -- under certain circumstances -- trigger a victory of the type Republicans have not seen since Ronald Reagan's coattails swept the GOP into control of the Senate and a 33-seat House pickup in 1980.

Robert Teeter, Bush's pollster, said Democrats have set themselves up for criticism because "until recently" they purposefully sought to establish themselves as more cautious and opposed to starting the war with Iraq. "With a lot of issues, people say there is not a dime's worth of difference between the two parties. But this is one of the things that control overall conceptions of the parties, and there is a clear differentiation," Teeter said.

Some independent and Democratic pollsters agreed. "If the economy is going well," said Tim Hibbitts, an independent pollster based in Portland, Ore., "the Phil Gramm scenario could develop."

"It's obviously an enormous political boon to him {Bush}," Tom Kiley, a Boston-based Democratic pollster said. "It's far too early to know what it will mean to other Republicans and Democrats, but it has the potential to be a realigning issue," meaning it could shift long-term party balance.

Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Opinion Research, said polling in North and South Carolina suggests that Sens. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) and Terry Sanford (D-N.C.) may pay a penalty in the 1992 elections for their votes against the war resolution. While the polls did not establish a direct link, surveys taken after the Senate vote show a sharp decline in both senators' favorable ratings.

Hibbitts pointed to the comments made last week by Rep. Les AuCoin (Ore.) as an indication of the potential vulnerability of congressional Democrats on the issue. AuCoin was quoted as saying that initiation of a ground war would be "a colossal mistake" that could cause "30,000 to 50,000 casualties on our side alone."

"You have lots of little Roger Ailes around the country who would be prepared to make the Democrats eat words like those," Hibbitts said, referring to Bush's ad-maker.

Republicans are looking to the more than 500,000 men and women who served in the gulf war as a potential source of congressional candidates. "We are thinking of recruiting some of these returning veterans to run against Democrats who voted against the president," said Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster who has worked extensively in House races. Rep. Vic Fazio (Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said, "I wouldn't be surprised if we had some returning veterans ourselves."

New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D), a potential 1992 presidential candidate, told reporters in Albany that he was not worried about the political effects of the war. "Nobody's ever unbeatable," Cuomo said. "We're the mightiest military machine in the world; that's obvious. Now, we have to get to be the mightiest domestic machine in the world, and there's a lot of work to do there."

That was the theme many Democrats struck yesterday. The House Democratic Study Group put out a "special report" headlined, "The U.S. in Retreat on the Domestic Agenda," and claiming that Bush's budget "calls for declining investments in U.S. economic growth."

Illinois Democratic pollster Mike McKeon said his surveys suggested that most of the praise Bush is receiving stems from relief that there were few American casualties rather than support for his decision to fight in the gulf. "If they had their choice, they wouldn't have gotten involved in the first place," McKeon said. "There are so many problems here at home, and those are the things that will come to the fore."

But Richard Moe, a vetern Democratic strategist in Washington, said that "even though the landscape will be different" when Bush faces the voters, "I think he will still enjoy some residual benefit."

Staff writer Tom Kenworthy contributed to this report.