WHEN BOB DOLE was growing up in Russell, Kan., his mother apparently failed to tell him to say, "Well-played!" when an opponent clobbered him. The family had no tennis court.

George Bush was born knowing all about court etiquette, and when Dole aced him in Iowa, he gamely congratulated him.

But in Kansas, they holler when they hurt, and on election night in New Hampshire, Bob Dole, invited by Tom Brokaw to send a message to the winner, snarled, "Tell him to stop lying about my record."

Now Bush is hoping to make the southern primaries a referendum on Bob Dole's manners.

He is not saying so himself. Neither is his campaign manager, Lee Atwater. But Atwater's mother is on the record on the issue.

On the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour, Atwater, wishing to present himself as a person of extreme delicacy, one who shied in a well-bred way from criticizing another, recounted how upset his mother was by Dole's lack of the hypocrisy considered de riguer in these situations.

"Dole looked like such a poor sport," she said, according to her son.

To be absolutely fair, it should be said that Dole, appearing before his workers earlier in the evening at his campaign headquarters, with his wife by his side, did congratulate the victorious Bush, although he could not quite bring himself to mention his name.

But the significant thing about the business is that Mrs. Atwater is the first mother we have heard speak out in the current season. Bush mentions his mother and told a New Hampshire Nursing Home that she keeps him in line. When he talks about his achievement, she calls him up and accuses him of "bragging" -- a no-no in his set.

Mothers play a part in campaigns. They are invariably quoted as saying things their sons feel but do not wish to express. They give a certain cover, since no one is comfortable questioning the wisdom of the mother by questioning the credibility of the offspring.

We all remember the most notable and quotable mother of the 1984 campaign, Immaculata Cuomo, mother of Mario. Her son called on her repeatedly for comments and critiques of Walter Mondale's campaign conduct.

Mrs. Cuomo's view, as conveyed by her son, was that Mondale as a personality had the consistency of "polenta", which is apparently the Italian version of cream of wheat, and one of the few flavorless dishes that her homeland serves.

Cuomo never said whether he agreed with Mama or not. He simply passed on her observations to the U.S. public -- which endorsed them rather robustly.

Atwater's recourse to the maternal quote was rather striking, since he has scarcely ever hesitated to say something nasty on his own. One example: When he got into a fight with Samuel Tennenbaum, a Jewish leader in Columbia, S.C., Atwater's home state, he called Tennenbaum, among other things, "a Gestapo-type politician." It was demonstrably dirty pool, and he later apologized. Dole's campaign manager, Bill Brock, upon being informed of the latest Atwater family initiative, mentioned "a miserable little campaign manager."

But the Bush party line on Dole's "mean streak" is that it is too painful for people of refinement to dwell on. Bush said he will remain "above the fray."

He is not however, above a little surrogate meanness.

Just before the Iowa caucuses, his local campaign chairman, George Wittgraf, issued a vicious personal attack on Dole, citing mean-spiritedness, cronyism and his wife's financial holdings. Dole was furious, and his wife, it is said, was distraught. She read into the diatribe a charge that the senator had married her for her money. Dole confronted Bush on the Senate floor, stalked up to the podium where he was presiding and demanded an explanation.

Bush said, in one of those self-canceling statements for which he is famous, that he did not endorse the Wittgraf diatribe, but did not reject it, either.

He also attacked Dole via a last-minute New Hampshire television spot. It was a crafty piece entitled "Senator Straddle" and pressed the most sensitive button in the local psyche: "He just won't promise not to raise taxes -- and you know what that means."

Sen. Warren Rudman, Dole's most valuable New Hampshire sponsor, called it "s Pearl Harbor attack, delivered on a Sunday, with no time to answer."

The ad just clinkered it for Dole and prompted his breach of the Marquis of Queensberry rules in the presence of Tom Brokaw.

Dole's habit of saying what he thinks might have been called refreshing were it not for his reputation as a malign and angry man -- an image he hacked out as Richard Nixon's hatchetman and cemented in in 1976 during a disastrous debate with Mondale. His handlers brood about his temper. On the plane carrying the depressed Dole party back to Washington after the New Hampshire loss, Rudman told Dole, "You were provoked, you had a right to say what you did. Just don't call people names or call them liars, even if it's true." Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.