Former Vice President Al Gore has stirred the political debate over Iraq, warning that a military campaign aimed at ousting Saddam Hussein could distract the United States from the war on terrorism.

Al Gore questioned the Bush administration's approach toward Iraq in a speech in San Francisco.

In 1991, then-Senator Gore was one of the few Democrats to support a resolution authorizing the use of force to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

But now the former vice president argues that President Bush's willingness to go after Iraq without broad international support would "seriously damage" the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

"I do not believe that we should allow ourselves to be distracted from this urgent task simply because it is proving to be more difficult and lengthy than was predicted," said Mr. Gore. "Great nations persevere and then prevail. They do not jump from one unfinished task to another."

Mr. Gore's critique of the Bush policy toward Iraq is the strongest yet from any of the Democrats considering a presidential run in 2004. Most of them have already indicated they are likely to support the president's request for a congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq if necessary.

At the White House, President George W. Bush was asked if he had a response to the man he narrowly beat in the 2000 presidential election:

"I'm confident that a lot of Democrats here in Washington, D.C., will understand that Saddam is a true threat to America and I look forward to working with them to get a strong resolution passed," he said.

The Gore speech struck a chord with some Democrats who believe their party has backed away from a serious debate over Iraq out of a desire to refocus on domestic issues in advance of congressional elections in November.

Several Democrats called into a cable TV talk show in Washington to express support for the Gore critique. "A lot of people are very anti-war in this country," said one woman, "and I am glad that somebody finally is trying to put some reason into the discussion. Thank you."

At the same time, Mr. Gore's comments angered some Republicans. "You know what? I am praying that Al Gore runs, especially after that speech yesterday," said one caller. "He more than proved why half of Americans did not want him elected during the elections and and well more than half are glad he did not win post-September 11."

One prominent analyst noted that while public opinion polls indicate support for the president on Iraq, Americans are asking questions.

"There is a lot of evidence in the polls that there are some questions that the public is asking. "I have been out on the road in the campaigns quite a bit and you hear it in talking to people, said Craig Crawford, editor of the Hotline political newsletter in Washington, in an interview with CBS television. "There is real concern about the timing of this, whether it is really necessary. And Gore's central point is well taken."

Mr. Crawford also said that Al Gore's real intent may be to win support among Democrats should he decide to run for president again in 2004. "So what he is doing is Gore is going after those Democrat voters, and there are many, who oppose this war, the more liberal voters who tend to vote in primary states. So I think that was on his mind," he said.

The latest opinion poll conducted by CNN, USA Today and the Gallup organization found that 57 percent of those surveyed favored U.S. military action to oust Saddam Hussein. However, the poll also found that 59 percent oppose an invasion if it turns out that the United States has to act alone.