JOHNSON COUNTY, IOWA -- Elizabeth Dole, on the road and stump for the first 15 days since resigning as secretary of transportation, is into awe. Before a dinner group of 120 local Republicans in the basement of the county fairground's 4-H hall, Robert Dole's wife of 11 years explained why her husband deserves to be the next president: "He's had 27 years now in the Congress of the United States ... and I think his colleagues recognize what I have watched with awe, literally with awe, and that is his ability to cut through some of the most complex issues of his time and use his keen mind to come up with answers."

The Saturday night audience, most of it still working on a dinner of Iowa pork chops and cole slaw when Dole began her speech, didn't appear to be awed by the awe. It might have been different if the other Dole -- the keen-minded candidate -- had come here, as planned. He sent his wife instead. She didn't help by joking how rarely she saw her husband these days but that he would be elsewhere in Iowa the next day. Robert Dole cared enough about Johnson County almost to come.

Elizabeth Dole represents surrogate campaigning. The caper is not new. Rosalynn Carter did it for Jimmy Carter, the Kennedys dispatched eighth cousins. The 1987 difference is that a wife is out this early -- Robert Dole has only announced that he will announce this month -- and is working sparse crowds on the potluck circuit.

A larger difference is that Elizabeth Dole is a candidate's wife out to promote an image more than a candidacy. Not counting his bumbling 1980 try for the Republican nomination, Dole's only outing in national politics -- on the losing 1976 Ford-Dole ticket -- saw him serving the party as a hit man crabbing epithets against the Democrats. Now, according to his wife, the 64-year-old Dole should be seen as a model of compassion for the weak.

How did it happen? It's not merely former captain Dole's war record -- former combat flier George Bush was a tough fellow, too, back then -- but his postwar record. Elizabeth Dole said her husband, hospitalized three years, went through eight operations recovering from battle wounds. "I'm going to play amateur psychiatrist," smiled the amateur campaigner. "I think the character of Bob Dole that strengthened the man very much goes back to that time ... I just want to suggest to you that when you fight adversity of that sort, serious adversity, and you battle your way back, you develop an inner strength that enhances your strength, you can take almost anything ... I think it also enhances your sensitivity for the problems of others. Bob Dole is a very compassionate man. When he sees a person with a real problem -- a physical disability or some other problem in life that they can't control -- he's going to be there to help. He has compassion for his fellow man. The war years had a lot to do with that sensitivity ..."

Mrs. Dole, speaking as fast as her audience was eating slow, rates herself high in the sensitivity department. She told of making the highways, skies and railroad tracks safer during her tenure as secretary of transportation, a claim that few Washington public-interest groups take seriously.

She had a better case with her husband's current fortunes. A recent Des Moines Register poll showed him even with George Bush. The state's Republican senator, Charles Grassley, endorsed him. In the last quarter, Dole raised $4 million, a sum higher than Bush's intake.

After Dole tried selling her husband as Bob the Compassionate, she escalated by saying the entire Republican Party is that way. Republicans, she said, "have an image which we don't deserve but it's an image that's out there, and that is that somehow or another we're not caring, we're not compassionate, we don't care about the poor, we don't care about those who may have a physical disability or those who suffered some problem in life ... That's not an accurate perception but it's there and I think it's time once and for all to get rid of that image ... We are a caring party."

The day before Dole spoke, The New York Times ran a front-page story headline, "New Reagan Policy to Cut Benefits for the Aged, Blind and Disabled."

For a down-home crowd on Saturday night, Mrs. Dole, for all her gushes and smiles, provided little wit. A contrived political joke was about all she offered: "You know, I was sitting in the gallery of the Senate not too long ago ... I heard one of the senators say, 'Gentlemen, let me tax your memory.' And Ted Kennedy leaped to his feet and said, 'Why hadn't I thought of that before.' "

Dole laughed harder than the audience. The joke sounded like something off a file card from the '76 campaign.