RUSSELL, KAN. -- Ad astra per aspera (To the stars through difficulties)

-- Kansas state motto

Two weeks ago, Sen. Robert Dole's media consultants swooped down on his home town, to plan the presentation of his presidential announcement, which takes place here today. For hours, they climbed up and down a huge ladder, gazing down the red brick Main Street, past the storefronts to the wheat fields.

"How many cameras?"

"What's the best angle?"

Dole, it was decided, would appear before Ol' Dawson's drugstore, at Eighth and Main, where he had once been a soda jerk and which still has its fountain and counter. Across the street, Banker's Clothing Store has added a new legend to its marquee: "Bob Dole suited up here first."

Almost every store on Main Street features campaign collectibles in honor of the favorite son, from "Dole in '88" limestone paperweights to "Bob Dole for President" baseball caps. The Home State Bank has set up a collection box where customers can make a campaign deposit before reaching the teller's window.

One of the consultants, intoxicated by the atmosphere, could no longer contain himself: "Great stage set!"

But Russell, population 5,400, is no Potemkin village; it is far more than a quaint backdrop for Dole's announcement. "It's real," says Dole. It is the key to his personality, his politics, his vision -- and his strategy against his principal rival for the Republican nomination, Vice President George Bush.

In the first Republican debate last month, Bush did much to remove the "wimp" label. But Bush has yet to deal with the challenge that Dole is about to put to him implicitly: the Silver Spoon problem. In fact, since Lincoln, with the accidental exception of Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican Party has never nominated a candidate who could not claim a modest small-town origin, preferably in the Midwest. The contrast between Dole and Bush, in this regard, could not be sharper.

"I didn't dream it up to go after Bush," says Dole. "But it's true. He started at the top and he stayed there. That says something . . . Why should he even be there? I start going down all the different things. What does he call himself, the copilot?"

The Republican class struggle is now about to be waged from Rotary Club to Rotary Club, from village to village, where Dole will attempt to make a deeper connection than Bush. "Republicans are members of the lodge," says Robert Ellsworth, Dole's campaign chairman. "Everything is in order. Hierarchy is respected. Even if the president-elect of the Rotary Club is not up to it, it is his turn. That's Republican culture. That's why Bush is very strong. We're fully aware of that, of the difficulty. We have to overcome the cultural thing."

But Dole's image is that of a master of the capital. Every aspect about him seems to be completely comprehensible in Washington terms. He has, after all, been on the scene since his election to the House of Representatives in 1960, and has risen to be the majority -- and now the minority -- leader of the Senate.

Dole thinks about issues in their legislative forms, as bills and amendments. And his rhetoric often reflects his years of bargaining and compromise. In his talk, one can hear unmuffled the chugging of the governmental machinery. His second marriage, to former transportation secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole, also marks him as a quintessential Washingtonian. Their address -- the Watergate -- is as inside-the-Beltway as could be imagined.

Can Dole transcend Washington? The absence in Dole of the Cinerama element that presidential candidates are expected to project -- "a vision" -- is frequently said by his critics to demonstrate otherwise. "I've never seen a candidate with less poetry," says John Buckley, press secretary to Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), a nomination rival.

Dole's difficulty in articulating his purpose as a "vision" may be because his assumptions seem to him to be just common sense. Nothing reveals this more than the issue that lies at the center of his outlook: the deficit. "There is a basic fundamental fact," he says, "that if you spend more than you make, you have a problem, whether it's an individual, a little business, state or local government, or the federal government."

Dole regards the visionaries of the Reagan era as the culprits chiefly responsible for the astronomical federal deficit. "We've lived on a credit card for seven years," he says.

On the other hand, he seems almost sympathetic to the Democrat Reagan overwhelmed in 1984 -- Walter Mondale -- who warned about the deficit and spoke of raising taxes to deal with it. "I think Mondale always had a point," says Dole. "If I had been Mondale, I wouldn't have addressed it quite that way. But I think it was courageous."

Supply-side economics, the doctrinal basis of Reagan's policies, is "something I've never understood," Dole says. He believes that "it's had a fair chance to work," and that it failed. In the aftermath of the stock market crash, there is "fear and uneasiness." The deficit, to him, is "the issue."

"My view," he says, "is that there isn't an easy way." For Dole, the deficit issue is ultimately an issue of character. The "easy way" was not what he was taught and is not how he has lived.

Dole is triumphantly cheered in Russell precisely because of what he has done elsewhere. The two halves of his life are not opposed, but continuous. Coming, as he does, from a poor rural family does not mean that he was bred with the psychology of an insurgent outsider. And having become a Washington insider does not mean that he has betrayed his roots.

In Republican Kansas, the story makes perfect sense. To understand Dole solely in his Washington role is to understand merely half of him. He is not an original political figure, but the product of perhaps the most rooted Republican political culture in the country -- a Republicanism that antedates the latest "vision."

In the Heartland

Kansas was a cause before it was a state, and the cause of free soil was that of Republicanism. Russell, in western Kansas, was founded in 1871 by a colony of settlers from Ripon, Wis., the birthplace of the Republican Party. It was named after an obscure Civil War hero, who never bothered to visit.

In the late 19th century, the dominant GOP was challenged by a Populist uprising of discontented farmers. A large photograph depicting a scene from "The Legislative War of 1893" stands on an easel at the entrance of Ol' Dawson's drugstore. In it, a group of whiskered men pose clutching their rifles in the chamber of the Kansas House of Representatives. These are the Republicans.

The owner of this photo, Larry Rogers, is the owner of the drugstore. He is a former Republican state senator. He knew Dole as a boy. "He was just Bob Dole and then he went into office," he says. His wife, Tish, constantly talking on a wireless telephone, is coordinating the arrangements for the Dole announcement.

When Dole, who is 64, was growing up here, the Republican Party was more than a political party -- "it was a way of life," says Russell Townsley, the publisher of the Russell News Record. Its precinct and county organizations had the jobs and the contracts, but the real force was what Townsley calls a "Republican benevolent protection society," loose groupings, from county to county, up to the statewide level, of "editors, bankers, contractors, Main Street interests and farm leaders." It was they, says Townsley, who made and broke candidates. "It wasn't a machine in the Chicago sense," he says, "but a screening system."

In the 1930s, the populist assault came from J.R. Brinkley, who sold over the radio an elixir made from goats' testicles. He came close to winning the governorship twice, in 1930 and 1932, and then disappeared into Texas.

Brinkley's main effect in 1932 was to split the Democratic vote, allowing the Republican, Alf Landon, to slide into the governor's chair. "You can't spend what you haven't taken in," said Landon about the state budget. His statement was the common sense of the farmer, who lived on the brink of ruin. In 1933, Landon's cry became a law -- the cash basis law -- which prohibited deficit spending. Since then, in Kansas, no Democrat has ever advocated deficits.

But Landon combined his fiscal conservatism with another Republican legacy -- Theodore Roosevelt's progressivism. Landon's influence can be felt in the Senate through his daughter, Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum. And his thoughts on deficits are echoed, almost word for word, in Dole's speech -- the language of Kansas.

Dole's father Doran owned a creamery and butter station, frequented by farmers, who often could not pay in cash. The economy had collapsed to the point that barter was nearly as widespread as a medium of exchange. Chickens were acceptable payment.

"Either you worked or you didn't survive," says Kenny Dole, Bob's brother, who lives in Russell and is an oil lease broker. Kenny is Dole without Washington.

"People were natured here different," he says. "Our family was poor. Never took a vacation. Saw a train go through town -- that was a biggie. Never went anywhere. Saw a play at school. Our whole life was school and home. I can't tell you about our big trip to Africa and how we shot elephants . . . My dad got up at 5 in the morning every day, including Saturday and Sunday. If we were at home we got up at 5. No lazing around watching television. There was no such thing. He'd find you work to do . . . All we know is work. Wish to hell we could have done something else."

Kenny remembers his mother making "her own syrup, her own butter." Even well-to-do farmers slaughtered their own livestock for meat. "Farmers today don't know how to do that." During the Depression, he recalls, "when you got a loaf of bread from the bakery you were a big-time operator. If you went to a restaurant, your mother was lazy. People made comments. 'Just put some water in the gravy,' my mother said. 'We'll get by.' "

The main avenue of escape without leaving town was the Dream Theater, which still stands. The senator remembers being unable to see its marquee from close range during dust storms of the 1930s. And he remembers seeing Ronald Reagan movies at the Dream.

"I saw them all," he says.

One day, in 1937, the Dole family moved into the basement of their house. The four children asked their mother Bina why they were down there, says Kenny.

The answer had to do with the changing economy of Russell. No matter how hard Doran Dole worked, he continued to fall into debt. When he was $1,200 behind in mortgage payments, the bank prepared to foreclose.

But the unexpected intervened: From Texas to Oklahoma to western Kansas, oil was being found. And one of the oil men rented the upstairs of the Dole house for $1,200 a year, payable in advance.

The Doles' poverty did not make them outsiders, though Doran did vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt. Everyone suffered. And the dominant Republicanism retained a kind of small-town optimism: Virtually everyone in Russell believed that they would do well if not for external circumstances. And virtually everyone had been both up and down.

"When you're really up," says Townsley, "you don't pay much attention to it." "Some of them," says Bob Dole, "have been broke more than once." This particular egalitarianism easily coexisted with the ethic of self-reliance, self-denial and hard work.

Young Bob Dole seemed to be proof. He may have been poor, but he was in the university, clearly on his way up. And then came the war. Others came back to parades, but he returned on a stretcher. He had many operations, permanently lost the use of his right arm, lay in a hospital bed for more than a year. It was thought he would never walk again.

"It's all sort of a blur after a while," Dole says. "I'm certain when it first happened I was bitter, like anyone would be. Why me? I was chasing around the country to see if somebody couldn't provide some miracle to get it all to work again. It was obvious I was going to have a disability. It wasn't obvious to me . . . It takes a while to accept it. I don't really accept it yet. Every day you know you've got a problem. Every day you know people have real problems."

There was no "easy way," no miracle. He restored much of his strength by very hard work with pulleys and weights. Today, he refuses shortcuts. He ties his own tie, laces his own shoes.

"Why won't he buy a clip-on tie and wear loafers?" says his brother. "Because he doesn't want to be let off that easy."

The Politician

In 1950, Dole was at Washburn Law School in Topeka, the state capital, when John Woelk, the former county attorney from Russell, appeared on his doorstep.

"I was selected to talk to him about filing for the Kansas state legislature," says Woelk. "I told him if he wanted to be in politics in Kansas he'd better get in as a Republican. He was very much interested in running." And the young war hero, collecting contributions from his Russell neighbors in a cigar box, won.

Two years later, he ran for county attorney and won. Two important events made possible his subsequent rise. The county attorney was paid about the same salary as the janitor in the Main Street building where he worked. To supplement his income, Dole filled out income tax returns at $2 apiece, and sometimes worked nights.

On one of those nights, Huck Boyd, a newspaper publisher from neighboring Phillips County, noticed the light in the window. Boyd was "amazed," says Townsley. He was part of the local "benevolent society" that was the Republican Party, "constantly looking for somebody who's winnable. He spotted Dole as a comer." And he became his political mentor.

At about the same time, Dole joined half a dozen other county attorneys in a lawsuit against a new severance tax on oil and gas. It went to the state supreme court, where Dole argued the case. The law was declared unconstitutional because of a technical fault in its title, and the victory was a turning point in Dole's career.

The oil and gas industry in Kansas "wasn't well organized until we had a cause to get behind," says Dick Shields, an oil man in Russell. Dole had catalyzed the oil interest statewide. "Bob championed the cause," says Shields. "The old guard of the oil industry recognized Bob as a shining light. They recognized Bob earlier than he was recognized locally. Bob was a lot more help than people realize."

When Dole ran for Congress in 1960, he drew upon the political resources of Huck Boyd and the financial resources of the Kansas oil industry. As the Republican, his support was not restricted to one group. But the oil interest was important.

"Bob's toughest race was for Congress," says Shields. "He had a hard time raising money. But Bob didn't have much trouble raising money from the oil industry." And when Dole ran for the Senate in 1968, the oil interest backed him again. "It got him a lot of campaign money," says one of his longtime supporters in Russell. "It got him the dough to go."

The oil was crucial in another respect. Kansas is politically split, with the agrarian west posed against the urban east -- the cowboys versus the city boys. Dole was never trapped by those categories, partly because of the oil connection. It made him a westerner with allies in the east.

But after his first term in the Senate, Dole was in a precarious political position at home. He was not helped by having served as the Republican National Committee chairman while Nixon's presidency unraveled. Dole distinguished himself with slash-and-burn comments against Nixon's foes; Nixon rewarded Dole by unceremoniously dumping him and replacing him with a defeated congressman, George Bush.

In 1974, Dole almost lost his seat to Dr. William Roy. In the final hours of the campaign, the charge was made that Roy had performed abortions. Dole has always disclaimed responsibility for the story, but many in Kansas politics believe that his campaign was behind the attack.

"His ambition was perceived to be his only dimension," says Bill Hoch, the leading Democratic media consultant in Kansas, who served as an intern in Dole's office. "He was perceived as extremely nasty. The perception was that he was one mean SOB." And that image was not softened by his vice presidential run, when he referred to all 20th-century wars as "Democrat wars."

Then he appeared to change. "He became less vitriolic," says Hoch. He took on new issues: food stamps, the Voting Rights Act. And he remarried. His first wife, Phyllis, did not share his relentless absorption in politics; he made few concessions to a normal home life.

Elizabeth Hanford Dole, however, matches the intensity of his interest in politics; she resigned as transportation secretary to campaign for her husband. In a way, it is a Hapsburgian sort of marriage, an alliance of political forces.

The Candidate

Dole has taken decades to get from Kansas to where he is today in Washington. "He is a national figure, but not yet a national candidate," says Burdette Loomis, professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

At the first Republican debate on Oct. 28, the two Doles -- the hatchet man and the statesman -- clashed. The loser was Dole.

"I was sedated," he says. "We were trying to bury the hatchet. Maybe we read too many of these stories. Maybe the public doesn't know about the hatchet man."

As he thinks about his soporific performance, his natural wit takes over. "The problem was nobody attacked me," he says. "They attack Bush. I'm going to demand that {Pierre} du Pont attack me. I'm going to file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against Bush. Bush didn't fall off the platform, so he did very well, did a good job. We'll probably change that the next time out."

Though Dole has recently hired impressive figures to staff his campaign -- former labor secretary William Brock and Reagan's pollster Richard Wirthlin -- he still lacks a coherent strategy. "I don't think anyone has carefully thought through the questions of tone, position, thrust," says a political consultant familiar with the workings of the campaign.

His practicality overwhelms any effort at "vision."

"I went out on the terrace {of the Capitol}, nobody else around, looking at the Washington Monument, thinking of these lofty thoughts of why I was running for president," he says.

And the thought?

"How do I beat George Bush?"

Dole has yet to find an issue of principle that may shatter Bush's jerry-built coalition. And his campaign against Bush is complicated because it is run within the shadow of Reagan. The remaining matinees of Reagan's Dream Theater, with atmospherics supplied by Wall Street, highlight Dole's brand of realism therapy.

But is the dosage too strong for Republican voters conditioned by bright promises of "morning again"?

"As I travel around the country," says Dole, "people are willing to take the bitter medicine, but nobody wants to hold the spoon. The president doesn't, we {the Congress} don't. So we're all dancing around trying to pin the tail on somebody's donkey." Still, he feels that the deficit is "the issue. It's intangible. You can't feel it. People don't know what it means to them. But they know sooner or later somebody has to pay for it. Are we going to sacrifice for our children or are they going to sacrifice for us? Then you get their attention."

But the most experienced man giving Dole political advice believes that the deficit has never been a good issue -- that austerity lacks a certain attraction. "Nixon," says Ellsworth, who has been in touch with the former president, "doesn't think the deficit is interesting. Nixon said that when this thing started, Bush and Dole talked {only} as though they were ambitious to be in the White House."

But Dole began to talk about broadening the party, about minorities, about the disabled. "Nixon thinks that Dole has started to talk as if he has some other program in mind," says Ellsworth.

Dole's appeals to compassion, however, have been balanced by efforts to mollify those he calls "the professional right-wingers." He does not much care for them. "If you hired them and said, 'Do my mailing,' why they'd be for you. So everybody knows those games," he says. But on a number of foreign policy issues, from the Panama Canal Treaty to aiding anticommunist Angolan rebels to South African sanctions, he has taken their line. According to a conservative Senate source, Dole's support for these causes is on the order of "Where do I sign?"

Dole says: "The professional right-wingers are not for me . . . The right-wingers who don't want the party to grow, and so they kept out the blacks and those kind of folk, probably aren't going to be for me."

Dole himself has been having conversations with Nixon. "He said, 'You have to get back to the old-fashioned politics. Get out with the people. Let the people see you.' His theory is that we've gone too far in the media age." Perhaps this is Nixon's commentary on Reagan.

And it may be a suggestion about getting back to one's roots.

The best known novel about Kansas, "The Wizard of Oz," was written by that old Populist, L. Frank Baum. "What most people forget is that Dorothy spent most of the movie trying to get back to Kansas," Dole writes in his forthcoming dual autobiography (written with his wife). That is why Dorothy sought out the wizard who, at the climactic moment, was revealed to be a mere mortal. And yet, she clicked her heels, said the magic words -- "There's no place like home" -- and woke up back in Kansas, in black and white.

Is this moment in Republican politics something like Dorothy's moment of restoration?

"If it is," says Bob Dole, "then I can win."