HOUND EARS, N.C. -- Whenever Elizabeth Dole talks about her husband Bob, she always begins with the old story about making the bed.

It is her Modern Woman story, a little tale about the dilemmas that today's working wives must confront. People magazine came by one year, the story goes, to do another of those spreads on Washington's Power Couple and photographed the two of them making the bed.

Bob, naturally, took some flak for participating in this domestic chore.

But, she says, smiling devilishly, "they don't know the half of it. Bob does a mighty good job making that bed. He's got that job full time."

The crowd of well-heeled Republicans and family friends assembled at this Blue Ridge Mountains resort last month to contribute to Kansas Sen. Robert Dole's presidential campaign nodded appreciatively at this little insight into the two-career marriage.

What Elizabeth Dole did not share with the group was a more pressing dilemma, one that was closing in on her even as she spoke. About how it was becoming increasingly difficult to continue as secretary of transportation and campaign for Bob at the same time. About how a wave of bad publicity was building, about to crest, blaming her for allowing air safety to erode and lousy airline service to become routine. About how she was going to have to face up to the choice she had made years ago, which was to push him on toward the White House.

The trip to Hound Ears would, in the end, be her last official outing as secretary. Three days later, after two more campaign stops in Columbia, S.C., she would return to Washington and announce that as of Oct. 1, she was trading her Cabinet post for that of a full-time Candidate's Wife.

She said there was the plan to concentrate her work in the "Super Tuesday" primary election states of the South to consider. The push to overtake Vice President George Bush, the chief Republican opposition, in the polls.

"The thing is, Michigan is only four months away, and Bob is ready to make his announcement shortly," she said brightly from the White House driveway. "I want to be a part of my husband's campaign because I believe in him and we're talking about some serious business here."

Dole would also say it was a difficult decision, a "tough choice," one she had been wrestling with for weeks. She gently raised the issue of sexism. She asked if this was a "spousal question," as if some hidden chorus of voices had publicly called for her to step down when no one had asked her to resign at all.

But the choice had been made long before -- the only question was when she would go. And by leaving when she did, she escaped any serious review of her performance as secretary. Suddenly no one cared if Bob Dole's wife wanted Mode C transponders on small airplanes.

"I knew all the time that she would go with him when she felt the time was right," said Mary Hanford, her mother.

On the Hill, the Democrats called her "Sugar Lips." The name was coined by a frustrated senator one day after Dole had disarmed a group of senators at what was supposed to have been a tough hearing. It was not the first time she had done that, and the name stuck. Eventually, it came to symbolize Dole's successful use of one of her most potent political tools: her style.

She mixes femininity -- in her case, a southern-belle graciousness and an almost girlish charm -- with her Ivy League professional credentials more successfully than perhaps any woman in public life today. Her style has brought her good press; it has made her one of the most sought after speakers in the Reagan administration. It has soothed angry lawmakers and transportation executives alike. And it makes her an even more potent force on the campaign trail, particularly in the South.

"She's got a movie star quality to her," says Dave Owens, a longtime friend of Sen. Dole, who has raised money for each of his presidential and senatorial campaigns. "You can see it after she's made an appearance. People want to touch her and get their picture taken with her."

"You know she has just flown in from somewhere and she is flying out again that day, but she will talk to you as if she has nothing else to do but talk to you," says Wyndham Robertson, who grew up with her in Salisbury, N.C.

She is always cheerful, spunky. Her sentences are sprinkled with "gosh," and she easily shares what seem like family intimacies, such as how Bob slept on the couch one night before she went on the "Today" show to keep the dog from waking her.

Elizabeth Dole, 51, is the only daughter of a well-do-do florist with a business that dated back three generations. Salisbury, in those days, was a small southern town with plenty of traditional values. For a girl growing up in the 1940s, life was ballet classes and horseback riding lessons, trips to the seashore and, at 18, a debutante ball in Raleigh.

She nicknamed herself "Liddy."

At 5, she was mascot to her older brother's high school graduating class.

At 8, she was president of her third grade Bird Club.

At 20, she was student body president of the Women's College at Duke University. She was also May Queen.

Then there is the story, which Dole tells herself, about her first court case after her graduation from Harvard Law School. In Washington, she worked briefly representing indigents and was assigned to defend an immigrant zoo keeper accused of harassing a lion. Unless the lion was brought into court to testify, Dole argued, the prosecution couldn't prove it had been harassed. The charge was dropped.

"I began to see a change in her when she took political science in college and I really thought she would take home ec," her mother recalls. "I remember talking with a political science professor and said, 'What do you think about a girl taking political science?' and he said, 'I think it's wonderful. We need women in government.' And then he said, 'Oh, don't worry, Mrs. Hanford, they all get married anyway.' "

"We certainly never talked about a plan for a career," says Robertson. "I felt I slid into my career, and I felt she did, too."

Washington, Dole's mother says, drew Dole "like a magnet," and for the next 20 years she climbed the ladder to increasingly better political jobs and evolved from Democrat to Independent to Republican. She was legislative assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson's consumer affairs adviser; then, executive director of the President's Commission on Consumer Affairs.

She had the right political connections. She was an attractive woman. And she had drive.

Her tenacity is perhaps best illustrated by her effort to get onto the Federal Trade Commission when the Senate Commerce Committee balked at a proposal to make her a member in 1973.

Michael Pertschuk, then the committee's chief counsel, remembers passing the word back to the White House that the committee thought she was a poor candidate.

"Twenty minutes later, she was in my office saying, basically, 'What do I need to do to be acceptable?' " Pertschuk says. "My answer was that if she was acceptable to the consumer leaders, if they supported her, then the committee would not stand in the way."

By coincidence, a consumer convention was meeting that weekend -- and Dole was on the next plane, in search of support.

"The next week," Pertschuk says, "we had a call from the White House with a group of consumer people saying they would support her. That was pretty impressive. She went after what she wanted."

In 1976, Dole began her quest for a much bigger prize. She acquired a taste for presidential politics when she took a leave of absence from the FTC and campaigned for Bob's vice-presidential bid. In 1979, she quit the FTC two years before her term expired to help him run for president.

"We'd only been married eight months," Dole recalls of the 1976 campaign. "I had to listen to him for four or five days to kind of get the hang of it."

"She had good ideas, but they hadn't been seasoned by political judgment," the Doles' friend Owens says.

The seasoning came fast. By the end of the summer, she was known as the ticket's "Southern Strategy." She was given much of the credit for reshaping her husband's political image from partisan hatchet man to a power in the Senate. She was credited, too, with softening his sarcastic edge. Around Washington, the Doles, with their clever stage repartee, were dubbed by Savvy magazine as "the Nick and Nora Charles of politics."

She dismisses any role as image-maker as complete nonsense. "He's sort of the way I always knew him," she says. But her campaign tales usually include at least one story about the soft side of Bob Dole. How he was wounded rescuing a fellow soldier in World War II. How he choked up at a home-town rally in Russell, Kan., in 1976 when he recalled that the people there had raised money to pay for his hospitalization after the war ended.

The attention to image carried over when Dole was named transportation secretary in 1983. She promoted herself as the "safety secretary." She abhorred bad publicity. Her critics in Congress most frequently accuse her of managing the department by press release, of grandly unveiling a new regulatory procedure when the department had been pushed into it by Congress or the courts. A former spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration remembers how Dole ducked reporters in 1984 after a hugely promoted test of a special nonexplosive jet fuel in the Mojave Desert ended in flames.

"We were scheduling a news conference and then we were told she had another appointment she had to get to," Ed Pinto says. "So I ran the news conference with {then FAA chief} Don Engen instead of Elizabeth Dole."

By last spring, when airline travel began spinning out of control, Dole's report card began to acquire some failing grades. By late summer the bad reviews were piling up. The Washington Monthly headlined a September cover story: "Charming Her Way to the White House: air travel stinks, auto safety's a joke and Washington still loves Liddy Dole." A trade journal, Traffic World, editorialized that Dole's "stewardship over the last four years has been little more than a planned media event."

Her decision to leave, pressing in on her for weeks, came abruptly. Several major newspapers were preparing critical assessments of her four-year tenure at the department. Her reputation for grace and competence, an asset not only to her but to her husband's campaign, was at risk.

She says that the criticisms had nothing to do with her decision. She says she held the job longer than any of the department's eight secretaries. She talks of agonizing and soul-searching, but it was never really a question of her career versus Bob's, her job versus his. Her sights were set much higher than that.

"You have to look at the opportunity to be a part of something that will also have serious implications," she says. "Certainly as serious in that you are talking about who is going to be the leader of the free world. To be part of that can be very satisfying. There are many ways you can find fulfilment in the way you spend your time. It doesn't have to be in a paid career position.