ATLANTA, NOV. 10 -- By defining the federal deficit as "the single greatest threat to a prosperous and dynamic America" and by committing himself to an austerity program of spending cuts and possible tax hikes if elected, Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) has set his presidential campaign on a course challenging widely accepted strategic assumptions in both political parties.

"The American people are ready for bitter medicine," Dole declared as he campaigned through Iowa last week. "The credit card is due." In taking this course, Dole is defying both the collective wisdom drawn from Walter F. Mondale's failed bid for the presidency in 1984 and the strategy adopted by the New Right wing of the Republican Party: that calling for sacrifice does not win elections.

"Americans are fair-minded people. They are willing to endure some changes in federal programs -- if they know everyone is sharing equally," Dole argues, developing a theme that his adversaries in the Republican Party, including Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and members of the Conservative Opportunity Society, denounce as "root canal economics" and "the politics of pain."

As Dole has moved during this two-day announcement swing from Kansas through Iowa, New Hampshire, Georgia and North Carolina, he has made clear that he does not accept the thinking of the supply-side theorists and politicians who dominated the early years of the Reagan administration. He is arguing instead that voters are willing to play by the same rules that govern the personal budgeting of the cautious farmers and small-business people in his home town of Russell, Kan.:

"We do not expand opportunity when we burden our children with debt from our own self-indulgence. We will either sacrifice for our children, or we will continue to make our children sacrifice for us. We have the privilege of choosing. Our children do not."

The stock market crisis -- "a warning shot across our bow" -- is providing impetus for a policy of austerity, according to Dole.

However, in addition to challenging those who argue that voters are not prepared to back a candidate whose campaign centerpiece is a call for national denial, Dole's decision to focus with such sharp intensity on the deficit has already begun to constrict another core element of his political strategy: his commitment to presenting himself as a Republican who will care for the elderly, the sick and the needy.

On the campaign trail, Dole declares: "If you want someone from real America, someone who is going to worry about the hungry and the unborn and the homeless and the abused children and the neglected children and the senior citizens who have no money and they need long-term health care, then I think you ought to take a hard look at me . . . . I will be sensitive to the needs of the left-out and the down-and-out."

In more specific form, Dole said that as president, he would make "certain we provide adequate health care" to children and the elderly, including filling the "serious gaps {that strike} terror in the hearts of those who need long-term health care"; he would cut the "drop-out rate {from schools} by at least 10 percent a year," and he would "reduce by 2 million a year the 23 million" illiterate adults.

All this, in theory, would be achieved while eliminating a budget deficit in the $150 billion range and while ensuring that there is no attempt "to shortchange the defense modernization programs that keep us strong," including Dole's commitment to a phased deployment of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars."

Asked how he could resolve the apparent fiscal conflict between his varying goals, Dole said that in the case of health care, for example, cuts could be made in a number of areas to find the cash to finance improvements for the elderly and children. More broadly, he contends that "when it's all said and done, you have to make the hard choices, you have to cut spending. There is not a program I know of, with one or two exceptions, that couldn't take a tuck."

If Dole can persuade the voting public of the legitimacy of his austerity themes, he then believes he is in the best position to win the trust of the voters to perform surgery. In what amounts to taking up the challenge of those who criticize his "root canal economics," Dole argues:

"If you are going to have an operation next month, you are going to try to find the best doctor you can, someone who understands how that works. I think I am that candidate."