Elizabeth Dole has always been the perfect lady, a credit to her native South and her family. Even in surrender, she exhibited no rancor. Now we may find out if she is the perfect wife as well.

Her husband, Bob Dole--"my precious husband" as she called him at her farewell news conference Wednesday, startling him as much as her audience--has strong presidential preferences. Arizona Sen. John McCain had been his first choice, even when his wife was still a contender. In a treacherous interview with the New York Times's Rick Berke, the 1996 Republican nominee confided that he was anxious to help keep McCain in the race.

McCain and Dole have the deep affinity of fellow veterans. After a stint with Texas Sen. Phil Gramm in the 1996 race, McCain switched to Dole and made the best speech of the Republican convention in nominating him. By the end of the race, McCain had become Dole's confidant and almost-constant traveling companion.

In bowing out, Elizabeth Dole declined to endorse anyone else. Maybe the Doles are united in a high opinion of the struggling McCain. Or she might show her independence by joining the parade for the "inevitable" George W., who might pick her for his ticket.

Always genteel, she placed all the blame for her retreat on money. This was subliminal help for McCain in that he got clobbered in the Senate last week again on his biggest issue, campaign finance reform. Certainly it is a good story. Who could go up against the $60 million Bush advantage or the bottomless pockets of Steve Forbes?

But it is not the whole story. A handful of others, all paupers by Bush-Forbes standards, are staying in. Gary Bauer hangs tough because he has a cause: abortion, an emotional subject with some. Alan Keyes, a candidate who is even more obscure, never goes anywhere, and so his persistence is cost-free. McCain has a solid-gold biography and maybe a sleeper issue in campaign spending. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch has nothing to lose: He stands at zero in polls in New Hampshire, the first primary state.

It may have been a lack of message rather than an absence of money that did in Elizabeth Dole. She pulled in many women, but did not campaign on women's issues. Some men called her "a Stepford wife," an over-programmed perfectionist. And women from outside the South found her deep-fried effusiveness off-putting--they could not identify with a woman who calls her husband precious, an adjective they might give a baby but never a husband.

She made a speech about gun control in pro-gun New Hampshire, which was notable for a conservative Republican. She was sharp and specific and pleased the left. The right approved her strong statements on the need for a military buildup. But her campaign had no driving theme. Pros frowned at her failure to capitalize on her better-than-expected showing in the Iowa straw poll: She took a two-week vacation instead of making a fund-raising push. Despite her considerable credentials, she brought only a skirt to the proceedings and in the end offered only the novelty of the first serious presidential run by a woman.

The immediate Washington reaction was a bounce for Bush. Six House Republicans who had been supporting Dole immediately switched to his camp, bringing to 160 the number of endorsements he enjoys.

In New Hampshire, where things are heating up three months in advance of any balloting, McCain is frantically wooing disconsolate Dole workers. He may have a slight edge with them, as they are mostly female newcomers to politics and turned off by the political establishment as represented by Bush. Dole's withdrawal has brought McCain, who is moving up in the polls, closer to his dream of a two-man race. A perverse element in the first primary state always needs to be factored in. There are those who like to liven up the long winter every four years by tripping up a sure thing.

New Hampshire Democrats who have not so secretly yearned for McCain--and could change their registration to vote for him in the February primary--may be cooled off by his recent vote against the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Al Gore is making Republican rejection of the treaty the top issue in his campaign. McCain's explanation--that he was following the advice of old Cold Warriors such as Henry Kissinger--does not enhance his image as an independent foreign policy thinker.

Local politicos advise that the test ban does not cut. Campaign finance reform, however, has resonance because New Hampshire remembers the Claremont compact of 1995, wherein Bill Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich promised action.

Has Dole improved her chances to be a running mate? The Bush folks wish she had stayed in a little longer to distract McCain. On Decision Day, Republicans will perhaps be most guided by what the Democrats do. If they go for a woman on their ticket, the Republicans are almost bound to do likewise.