It was 12 years ago in the swinging Kansas home of cemetery owner Hap Bledsoe, that a small fund-raiser was held for the state's underdog Democratic candidate for governor, Robert Docking.

Underdog that day, yes, but Docking nevertheless went on to win the election, win reelection three times and to become on of Kansas' most liked and respected of men.

On a recent Sunday, Docking was back in Bledsoe's home, back among the pinball machines, the pool table and the beanbag chairs, for another fundraiser. This time it was for the dairy farmer from Smolan, Kan., population 257, who today is the state's underdog Democratic candidate for governor, John Carlin.

The 250 persons who had paid $100 each to be with Carlin were hopeful that the magic of 1966 would rub off on him.

Since the summer of 1977, sometimes driving to as many as 11 countries in one weekend. Carlin has been traveling across this state, building an organization and campaigning against Republican Gov. Robert F. Bennett, who barely won the election four years ago, when Docking retired.

Currently lagging in the polls, Carlin takes heart that Bennett, whatever the powers of his office, still has not crossed 50 percent in those polls and Democrats think that Carlin can make enough ground to return the governor's office to the Democrats.

That would give a new push to their campaign, moving like a cattle drive of the Old West across the plains, to break the Republican hold on offices and bring two-party politics to several plains states.

Bennett won office by 3,677 votes out of 772,000 cast, and President Carter is to campaign here next Saturday for Carlin and for the Democratic Senate candidate, Bill Roy, both crucial candidates for possible Democratic gains this election year.

Bennett is one of only 12 Republican governors, and the defeat would be a stinging setback to Republican hopes for increasing their ranks of governors this year and for rebuilding their party from the local and state level up.

"There is only one poll I'm concerned about," said Bennett, referring to the Nov. 7 election. "We'll win by more than we did last time."

No single issue has caught on statewide, with local problems such as road improvement stroking the fires of differences over the candidates. Both men support the local-option referendum for liquor by the drink, which could radically alter life in this dry state. Bennett supports capital punishment, while carlin says he would sign legislation for capital punishment.

Carlin, who is speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives, portrays Bennett as a weak leader, a governor who opposes new ideas but then attempts to take credit for them when the legislature enacts them.

He has accused Bennett of having initially opposed property tax limitations and then rallying late to the cause of a legalized lid on property tax increases.

Bennett, for his part, accuses the legislature of having passed programs without worrying about where the money to finance them will come from in coming years.

As he flies over the flat and fertile fields of the nation's most bountiful wheat state, Bennett cites a growing Kansas economy and says his efforts to bring industry here have allowed the state to provide more money for such things as education without raising taxes.

"If he was doing a good job, I'd have stayed in the legislature," says Carlin, who hasn't farmed since July of last year, except for an occasional weekend milking between campaign trips.

"He is a do-nothing governor. He is not innovative. He provides no leadership. The legislature has had to step into the void. He criticizes us for spending, but then he takes credit for all the programs," Carlin said.

Bennett has generally been immersed in the business of his office over the four years since his election, but he is said to have shed some of his independent style to become more political over the past two years.

His unannounced inspections of nursing homes have brought him widespread attention as well as invitations to tour clean, well-managed nursing homes, where he visits with the sick and elderly.

Bennett won election over the state's then-attorney general, VernMiller whose penchant for riding on police drug raids and taking a hard line on student marijuana use apparently turned out enough voters in the state's college towns to give Bennett his margin.

Carlin concedes that he will have to win the state's three major urbanized areas to beat Bennett, who can be expected to do well in the Kansas CIty suburb to Johnson County.

What impact President Carter's visit will have is unknown. Kansas voted for GeraldR. Ford in 1976, and the wheat fields here have produced a rich harvest of resentment over Carter's farm policies.

Bennett gladly roped off highways for the tractorcade of the American Agriculture Movement's farm "strike," and the governor likes to taunt Washington as "Disneyland East."

While some find him allof, he can be likable and earthy, cheerful enough to chuckle at the small indignities of campaigning. He even shared a laugh the other night in Liberal, when the VFW post commander rose to introduce him and forgot his first name.