IN HIS HOME TOWN of Russell, Kan., Bob Dole announced yesterday that he is running for president. Sen. Dole is (by about a year) the oldest candidate in the race and the most experienced in national politics. He spent 39 months in the hospital recovering from grievous wounds suffered in World War II, and moved rapidly upward in politics. Having been injured in the first week of the Truman administration, he was sworn in as a congressman during the second-to-last week of the Eisenhower administration; he has served in Congress during the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan presidencies. In the minority, Mr. Dole was an acerbic critic of the Democrats but also a constructive legislator on farm bills and food stamps. When he unexpectedly became Senate finance chairman in 1981 and majority leader in 1985, he showed great legislative skills and a steely determination to attack problems he thought needed attacking. Most candidates running this year are little known, and the burden of proof is on them to show they deserve serious consideration. Bob Dole has already met that burden.

He does have his drawbacks. In years past, in contrast to his current reputation as one who can work with Democrats on the Hill and who favors the politics of accommodation leading to action, Mr. Dole was famous for the bitterness of his partisan instincts. Running for vice president in 1976, his wit turned corrosively nasty; now he stresses his concern for the handicapped and "those who've been left behind, those who've never found the ladder of success." This theme is a prominent one in his campaign. (In the recent "Firing Line" debate he alone stressed it.) Sen. Dole is undeniably an able legislator, but some fear he's too much of a one-man operator, concentrating on short-term legislative tactics rather than a long-term strategy for governing. Can he run a big-staff operation like the presidency, and does he have a broad-gauged view of society and government that can help him make tough decisions in the hurly-burly of daily events?

The campaign should give some hints to the answers to these questions. Mr. Dole begins with support comparable to George Bush's, and in some early contests -- the Iowa caucuses Feb. 8 and the South Dakota primary Feb. 23 -- his long record on farm programs will be an asset. Nationally he will argue that he will bring "practical solutions and tested experience," as his 18-minute TV ad puts it, to the Oval Office, that he will provide "strong leadership" at a time when the old rules in economics and foreign policy no longer seem to apply. It's a weighty argument -- just how weighty Republican voters will be telling us three and four months from now.