EXETER, N.H. -- The cliche of the moment about Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's quest for the presidency is that the Republican nomination "is his to lose."
What this means, of course, is that the Kansas Republican is in such a strong position at the outset that only his own failures could deny him the prize and the chance to run against President Clinton next year. The specific danger for Dole, the conventional wisdom goes, is that he will once again lose his cool and show a dark side that will cost him the nomination.
Or he will run a too-cautious, sit-on-a-lead campaign -- as he did here in New Hampshire against George Bush in 1988 -- while one of his rivals captures the imagination of Republican primary voters. Dole, it is said, lacks a message.
Both of those things may prove to be true. But the real problem for Dole goes far beyond keeping his good humor under the goading of such an abrasive rival as Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas or the competition he may face from Gov. Pete Wilson of California. To win the nomination and enter the campaign with a unified party behind him, Dole is under great pressure to resolve a basic conflict among Republicans.
Dole is trying to present himself as in tune with, if not precisely part of, the self-proclaimed Newt Gingrich "revolution." He is taking a hard line on the litmus-test social issues, abortion most notably. He seems determined to push through a tax cut.
And to demonstrate his commitment to turning power back to the states, he runs around these days with a copy of the 10th Amendment in his jacket pocket. That is the one about powers reserved to the states.
But the dirty little secret about Bob Dole is that he believes government has a useful function to perform. By contrast, the Gingriches and Gramms, the Dick Armeys and Trent Lotts of the Republican Party seem bent on reducing the federal government to the size of a corner grocery.
This does not suggest that Dole is a liberal, not by a long shot. He is what he has always been -- an intensely conservative Midwestern Republican. The difference is that much of his party has moved to new ground on the right, not just on social issues but also on fiscal, economic and administrative policies.
This juxtaposes Dole most clearly against Gramm. And it puts him in a position of competing for support from GOP moderates with Wilson and, to a lesser extent, former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana.
Armchair psychologists in Washington like to speculate that Dole's feeling about government is partly a product of his experience when he was gravely wounded near the end of World War II and needed years of medical help to function again.
But it may be less complicated than that -- simply a product of the fact that Bob Dole has spent his entire adult life in government and politics, first as a member of Congress, then as Republican national chairman and senator. It is the kind of history that leads even the most political politician to recognize that there are worthwhile purposes that can be served in government.
This long experience is Dole's prime credential as a candidate for the Republican nomination. In a party that tends to reward years of faithful service, he has paid more dues than anyone else and, not incidentally, built alliances that are apparent in the flood BTC of endorsements that he has received from other Republicans.
But there is a down side, as well. Those who serve in Congress for a long time inevitably become shaped by that service. They tend to talk in governmentese rather than English. They think first in terms of legislation. And they tend to see issues in terms of how they can be negotiated, rather than how they fit an ideological prescription. Dole is a conservative but by no means an ideologue.
None of this means that Dole is fatally burdened by his history or the fact that he is not as hostile to the federal government at all levels as Phil Gramm. There are many Republicans -- including a significant segment of the primary electorate here in New Hampshire -- who consider him the obvious choice.
But it does suggest that there are basic questions facing Dole that could divide the party -- and complicate what Dole now may see as clear sailing to the nomination. The voters turned on liberalism and the Democrats with a vengeance last November. But it would be a mistake to believe that they want to shut down the government entirely.