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Before the Iraqis invaded Kuwait in August, things seemed to be looking up for the Democrats as President Bush's lengthy honeymoon began to end.

A looming economic recession seemed likely to be exacerbated politically when the president's son Neil was touched by the savings and loan scandal. Republican unity was threatened by angry conservative reaction to Bush's endorsement of a tax increase.And the end of the Cold War seemed to have reduced the impact of the defense issues that had long bedeviled the Democrats because of the perception they were reluctant to use force to protect national security.

But the Persian Gulf war and the president's stunningly successful prosecution of it against Iraq have changed all that.

Although a lingering recession could still cause significant problems, last year's GOP divisions have vanished. And the defense issue is back, even bigger than before.

While the political transformation of the past seven months shows how quickly things can change, the Democrats now face the prospect that 1992 not only could bring their sixth presidential loss in seven elections but a threat to their hold on Congress.

It is true that virtually all Democrats supported the president's initial decision to send troops to confront Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and backed his conduct of the war. But most party leaders and two-thirds of its congressional members voted against using force, and many argued against a quick resort to a ground campaign.

In the end, though, force carried the day in a way that opponents can never prove would have happened, based on economic sanctions alone.

And Republican strategists like Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, hardly known for subtlety, already are making clear they won't let the Democrats forget it, calling Bush's actions a logical outgrowth of GOP policies and contrasting them with such Democrats as Jimmy Carter, Walter F. Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

Democrats, meanwhile, sought to fuzz the differences and change the subject to domestic policy.

"I don't see very much difference except for the question of timing," Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, explained last week, adding that it was "absolutely not true" that he flatly opposed force.

While that is undoubtedly true in the case of a number of top Democrats, including Bentsen, most are now on record in opposition to what proved to be a successful and popular war.

Besides, many top Democrats have cast votes against weapons that proved successful in the war. And House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri made an inopportune threat to cut off funds for U.S. troops, though only if the president went to war without seeking congressional approval.

But that distinction would almost surely be lost in a GOP television spot, which may explain why the successful end to the war seemed to coincide with a reduced interest by him in his party's 1992 nomination.

And if Bentsen runs, he may be forced to explain frequently why his Jan. 12 vote was not a vote against force.

Indeed, every potential Democratic nominee will have to weigh his personal vulnerability on the war in deciding whether to enter the uphill race against Bush.

The problem is complicated by the fact that many rank-and-file Democratic activists may prefer a candidate who opposed the use of force in the gulf.

Even with some diminution in public support for the war, the Democrats could once more wind up with a nominee whose views were acceptable to a majority of their party but to a minority of the public at large.

At the same time, the presence of Gramm in the chairmanship of the National Republican Senatorial Committee ensures an aggressive GOP campaign for the Senate, where Democrats are defending 20 of the 35 seats being contested.

With anti-incumbent sentiment still running strong, even the 55-45 margin that Democrats currently enjoy could be threatened. And House elections also could be the most fluid in years with many districts redrawn because of reapportionment.

In recent cases where GOP presidents won landslide re-elections, their triumphs did not benefit the rest of the party. Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984 were mainly interested in their own success.

But Bush is a former Republican national chairman who has spent the better part of two decades seeking to make the GOP the majority party. It's hard to imagine, if he is still riding high, that he will devote his final 1992 campaign stop to trying to carry a 50th state, as Reagan unsuccessfully did in 1984.

Facing an all-out effort by Bush and an aggressive GOP campaign, Democratic leaders must find some way to minimize the potential damage from the war between now and November 1992.

Otherwise, the Republicans might just finally make the breakthrough that has eluded them for two decades.

(Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.)