If Bob Dole says one more word -- even one more -- about his rise from the social depths, he should be sentenced to go bowling. That punishment would be deliciously condign because Dole might bump into George Bush, who recently has allowed as how he is a bowling-alley kind of guy.
So, all of you Stanley Kowalskis, put your elbows on the Formica top of Stella's kitchen table and imagine how George Bush feels suffering through a rerun of this issue. In 1980 Ronald Reagan, that horny-handed son of toil, sashayed out of his tarpaper shack -- or was it a log cabin? -- in Pacific Palisades to challenge Bush for the nomination. Reaganites, hurling epithets the way boys in school dining rooms hurl hard rolls, charged Bush with being ''a clean-fingernails Republican.''
One day in 1980, several journalists badgered Bush about his ability to ''understand'' folks who are jus' folks, because he ''hasn't suffered'' or ''been tempered by difficulties.''
Bush: Financial difficulty, you mean?
Journalist: Well, whatever we mean by the dark night of the soul, of that sort of personal difficulty.
Bush: Have you ever sat and watched your child die?
Journalist: Thank God, no.
Bush: I did, for six months.
Journalist: What did that do to you? Is that the answer?
Enough, already. Today's Dole-Bush debate about who looks spiffier in bowling shoes is (as a reviewer said of a dreary novel) ''like a long hike home in wet socks and gym shoes, uncomfortable and unnecessary.'' Let's agree that they have both suffered enough, and that their argument has enabled us all to make the same boast.
Such arguments recur because they are rooted in Republican history. Democrats can nominate the gently born (FDR, JFK), but Republicans recoil from the idea. Robert Taft and Nelson Rockefeller, from opposite wings of the party, failed. Nixon knew the rule: when the going gets tough, the tough wrap themselves in their wife's ''Republican cloth coat.''
As you might expect, Republicans cannot get the hang of the class struggle, so things get confusing. Taft, a president's son and a Yalie, was beaten by Dewey and Eisenhower, two men from modest backgrounds backed by the wicked East. But at least Taft was from Ohio; conservatives called him a tribune of the plain people. Willkie and Hoover made sacks of money (as Landon later did) but, as Dole understands, Republicans are permitted to make it, just not inherit it.
Coolidge rose by the effervescence of his personality (that's a joke, son) and Harding rose because things lighter than air do that. Charles Evans Hughes was the humbly born son of an immigrant clergyman. Not for 76 years, not since William Howard Taft, have Republicans nominated someone born to wealth.
Dole's point is that his life has etched on his consciousness an awareness that many deserving people need help from government. But he can sing that refrain in a different, less grating key, the one he improvised recently in a New Hampshire debate.
The candidates were asked to square their ritual denunciations of drugs and government spending with the fact that drug rehabilitation facilities are underfunded. Dole, who falls somewhere short of hip, did not know that his five-word punch line was a refrain from George Harrison's top-of-the-charts rock record: ''It's going to take money.''
As Harrison says, money ''to do it right.'' The country wants candidates, especially Republicans, with the independent judgment to say that some things have not been done right.
As vice president, Bush is cast in the unenviable role of the Republican Party's dripping faucet, saying and saying and saying something that most Americans doubt: that no significant course correction, no temperament tougher than Reagan's, is required. If Dole is chosen, it will not be for his charm, which, although real, is rationed (and is, like rationed sugar, especially pleasing when experienced). If Dole goes to the top of the charts, it will be because of a point he has yet to make.
He has made his point about Bush -- that Bush has lived a life of lateral movement -- a point that may or may not justify negative inferences about Bush's inner resources. But Dole's positive point about himself cannot be merely that the experience of social hardships is itself a virtue. Dole's task now is to show how his private biography foreshadows public benefits -- how a quickened capacity for empathy and a steely will can translate into the sort of presidency that ought to come next.