Democratic leaders gather here today faced with new evidence that the Persian Gulf War and race-related issues are eroding popular support and endangering the party's control of the Senate.

A Times-Mirror poll released today shows Republicans opening a 12-point lead over the Democrats in party identification and a 10-point advantage in the likely 1992 congressional vote. The survey, taken March 14-19, also suggests that Democrats who opposed President Bush on the war may be damaged at the polls even among women and blacks who shared their viewpoint at the time.

At the same time, a growing number of Democratic pollsters and consultants are voicing concern that racial issues, particularly that of quotas, could be used effectively in the presidential election and in a number of 1992 Senate contests.

"This could help dig a grave for the southerners who are up for election," said Ray Strother, a Democratic consultant, referring to the possibility of a partisan confrontation over civil rights legislation now pending before Congress. "If we are the party of fairness and people think set-asides and quotas are unfair, it runs counter to our message with working-class Democrats . . . If the Republicans pick up this word 'fairness' and use it with this {quota} issue, it's going to be devastating."

Douglas Schoen, a Democratic pollster based in New York, contends that Democratic liabilities on the issues of quotas and affirmative action are part of a larger problem.

"The Democratic Party," he said, "is not being perceived by voters as standing up for 'us,' and 'us' is perceived as people who work for a living, make a good income, don't rely on day to day government handouts, but who do worry about paying for college education, about providing for parents who are living longer and longer . . . . The Democratic Party is perceived as being interested only in the disadvantaged and the poor."

Natalie Davis, an Alabama member of the DNC and a pollster for state and local candidates, voiced deep frustration with the power of racial issues to break up the Democratic coalition:

"I think we are in serious trouble in terms of trying to put together a progressive electorate. Race comes in and just cuts us down the middle. It becomes a determining factor and unless it can be dealt with, you can't do anything."

David Axelrod, a Chicago-based Democratic strategist, said "there is no question that absent a consistent principle around which we can organize, we are going to be picked apart by pitching constituent against constituent, and race is the most susceptible and dangrous for us . . . . But the greater problem is the {party's} total identity problem. It's like a Woody Allen movie, and we are constantly having a public nervous breakdown."

The members of the DNC and the Association of State Democratic Chairs are meeting at a time when support for their party, as measured by poll data, has fallen to a level not seen in two decades.

Not only have no major Democratic presidential candidates emerged, but one of the most commonly mentioned potential candidates is now over 60 percentage points behind Bush.

The Times-Mirror poll, based on 2,028 interviews, gave Bush a 77 to 16 percent lead over New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D) in a trial heat 1992 presidential race.

Even more worrisome to party officials concerned about losing control of the Senate next year and seeing their 100-seat House margin erode was the report that Republicans have surged to a 50 to 40 percent lead over Democrats in congressional vote preference and a 50 to 38 percent lead (including leaners) in party identification. It has been many years since a reputable survey showed the Republicans enjoying double-digit leads in both those basic areas.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken earlier in March showed identical figures on the congressional vote preference but rated basic party identification essentially even.

A Times-Mirror poll a year ago showed Democrats at near-parity in the congressional vote preference of whites, 42 to 47 percent, and leading by a 9 to 1 margin among blacks. In the latest poll, they have a 3 to 1 advantage among blacks but trail among white voters by 17 points, 38 to 55 percent.

Davis found remarkably parallel racial splits among voters in Alabama on a basic question about affirmative action. Her poll asked whether affirmative action programs are "still needed to counteract discrimination against minorities who continue to have" less income, education and fewer job opportunities, or if "affirmative action programs have gone too far in favoring minorities, have unfairly discriminated against whites and should be phased out."

Whites in Alabama favored phasing out affirmative action by a margin of 58 to 26, while blacks supported continuation by a margin of 89 to 5.

As for the war, the Times-Mirror survey indicated that Republicans such as Sen. Phil Gramm (Tex.) and Rep. Newt Gingrich (Ga.) may strike political pay dirt by hammering on the Democrats for opposing Bush's decision to abandon the economic embargo and start hostilities against Iraq.

The survey found that 47 percent of those polled said they would be less likely to vote for their congressman if informed that he had voted against using force against Iraq after the Jan. 15 deadline and 44 percent said they would be more likely to support a congressman who voted for the war. Only one person in eight had the opposite reaction.

Polling analyst Sharon Warden contributed to this report.