"Bob Dole is a learner -- he asks the right questions. And he's grown more than anybody in this town in the last couple of years."

That's the assessment of an equally ambitious politician, former Democratic national chairman Robert Strauss. And like most other pulse- takers here, Strauss knows that Dole's presidential ambitions were not cooled by an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in 1980.

So long as Ronald Reagan intends to run for reelection, that's the only viable name on the Republican ticket for 1984. But if Reagan doesn't run, Dole can marshall an impressive set of credentials. And then there's always 1988.

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and one of a handful of powerful GOP leaders in the upper chamber, he has emerged in the last couple of years as a thoughtful, pragmatic and responsible official. He played the key role in pushing through a tax increase bill that has prevented the deficit from becoming even more unwieldy than it is.

Always direct and good-humored, Dole has mellowed since 1976, when he played the "heavy," or hatchet man, in the Ford campaign against Carter. His shift, some friends think, reflects the broadening impact of his wife, Elizabeth, a former Federal Trade Commission member now on the White House staff.

Dole readily acknowledges his wife's impact, especially in areas related to economic disparities suffered by women. But he also feels he's been thrust forward by the responsibility inherent in the majority role of the Republicans in the Senate, a role that has given him a chance to make his ideas more effective.

However explained, it is clear that Dole has shifted from the right wing of his party toward the center. Now that the Republicans control the Senate, he told me, "the reality is that we just can't sit here and harp about all these problems; we have to deal with them."

And while his main responsibility is to try to make the president's program effective, Dole says frankly that he's willing "to do a little looking around on our own--we believe we have some abilities and talent, so while we're in a position of influence, we ought to be testing, probing around, making some inroads."

As much as any politician, Democratic or Republican, Dole recognizes that the American public is dissatisfied with the economy. "There are going to have to be a lot of compromises (in trade, Social Security and other issues) next year, and that may upset people who think there's only one way to do things," he said at a breakfast for reporters.

Dole has even been willing to challenge the troglodyte view in his party which holds that the only good Russian is a dead Russian. Along with a number of American businessmen, Dole attended a U.S.-Soviet trade meeting in Moscow last month. He came away convinced that we ought to seek ways of boosting our economic relationships with the Russians.

"If you look at some of the grim alternatives, I think it's important to improve relationships, including trading relationships," Dole told a trade conference sponsored by the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

To be sure, Dole is from Kansas, a major farm state where there is bitterness over Washington's use of grain as an economic weapon against the Soviet Union.

"If we're not going to talk to the Soviet Union, if we're not going to trade with the Soviet Union, I don't know what the options are," Dole says. Like Secretary of State George Shultz, he thinks ways must be sought to ease tensions with the Soviet Union, and trade is one way to do it.

Most of the conservative big businessmen who were with Dole in Moscow, such as Pepsico chairman Don Kendall, strongly agree. The business view is of course linked with a profit motive, which is nothing more than sensible, enlightened self-interest. For Dole, it is a part of a politician's search for reality.

A big stumbling block in the U.S.-Russian relationship is the Jackson-Vanik amendment, linking most-favored-nation treatment on trade to emigration of Soviet Jews. A strong original supporter of Jackson-Vanik, Dole is flirting with the idea of conducting a hearing on how it's working. His theory is that if we signal a willingness to examine some of the things the Soviets dislike, the new government in Moscow might allow an acceleration of Jewish emigration.

What Dole risks is a backlash from what he calls "right-wing groups who don't want to have any contact with the Soviet Union." My columnist, colleague, George F. Will, has already slammed into both Dole and Kendall. It doesn't bother Dole. "If you can see a little glimmer of hope (of getting along with the Russians), I don't think you ought to dash it without exploring it," Dole said.