The gulf crisis might have caused potential presidential candidates to spring into action. Instead, it's had the effect of a freeze.

This time four years ago, Dick Gephardt and Bruce Babbitt were already out in Iowa, bidding for votes in a primary that was two years away. And other Democrats were letting it be known that their intentions to run were serious.Other than Jesse Jackson, a perpetual candidate, the likely aspirants remain on the sidelines, waiting for the president to shape either a highly unpopular gulf policy or one that fails.

They, of course, want the U.S. to succeed. But they know that the political realities dictate that Bush must look bad in this Mideast endeavor if they are going to be able to stake out clear positions as challengers.

At this point, the outcome of the gulf confrontation is too blurry for a "safe" challenge. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo made the mistake of venturing out into the fog and, in the process, may have damaged his prospects irreparably.

Cuomo gave a talk in which he suggested that a way out of the standoff in the gulf was to let Saddam Hussein keep a toehold in Kuwait, including a water outlet. This idea met with public disdain; few Americans are ready for such concessions.

Cuomo has since said his remarks were taken out of context, that he had only been theorizing. But if he decides to "go" this time around (and this is not at all certain), the New York governor may find it difficult to run away from charges by opponents that he would have been "soft" on Saddam.

There are, of course, issues other than the "war issue." Indeed, Democrats seemed to make some headway in the recent elections by picturing the president as weak and wavering in his efforts to deal with the budget deficit. Bush's turnaround on taxes certainly gave Democrats cause for glee.

But in recent weeks, the gulf confrontation has become a preoccupation of the American public. Nothing else is very important except how the troops are doing and how Bush is handling that ticklish situation.

It was Bush's apparent intention to take the offensive, after a big troop buildup, that emboldened Cuomo to talk, if only tentatively, of a compromise. He sensed (and he was correct) that the public would increasingly resist any action by the United States that would lead to the loss of American lives.

At the same time, Congress, reading that same public mood, expressed alarm over a policy that seemed headed for war.

Whereupon Bush, who all along has been alert to public attitudes - knowing what happens to presidents who, like Lyndon Johnson, ignore what the people are thinking - moved quickly to try to show he was doing everything possible to avoid a real war.

Then in a move that took the air out of the criticism from the dovish side, the president made his offer to have face-to-face diplomatic exchanges with Baghdad. Saddam then responded by announcing he would release the hostages.

At this point, Bush has once again captured the war issue. Except for those who think the United States shouldn't be in the gulf at all, most Americans again think Bush is making the right moves.

And, again, Cuomo finds that he spoke out - or misspoke out, or whatever he did - quite a bit early.

Only if the president now begins to show he is on the "wrong side" of the war issue, in the eyes of a big slice of the American public, will Democrats leap eagerly and early into this fray.