HOPKINTON, N.H., DEC. 6 -- Holly Bell's husband, Jim, was concerned enough that before he left on a weekend business trip he wrote out the question he wanted her to ask Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) when Dole appeared at a neighbor's home for a campaign reception.

That was why Bell, standing in a crowded living room Saturday afternoon, asked Dole why he, alone among the presidential contenders of both parties, has refused to take a firm position for or against the intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) treaty that President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev will sign this week in Washington.

Dole responded the same way he did during a nationally televised debate last week, when he first straddled the issue. The Senate, he said, has "a constitutional role" to play in a complex ratification process involving committee hearings, floor debate, the possible addition of "reservations" to the treaty.

The 200-page treaty had just become available and he had not read it, Dole said. He even suggested that Reagan has not read the final draft, and noted his unusual role in the debate among the presidential hopefuls: "I'm the only Republican candidate who will vote on the treaty."

It was the answer of a master legislative craftsman, and Bell, who said she shared her husband's unease over Dole's uncommitted stance on such an important issue, said it satisfied her. But her question and Dole's answer highlighted a central tension in Dole's third try for national political office that has so far produced a tentative, ill-defined campaign message.

There are, in a sense, two Bob Doles running for president this time. One can be glimpsed in a campaign videocassette that is being circulated here and in the other early primary and caucus states.

It is a powerful, personal portrait, tracing Dole's path from the poverty of Depression-era Russell, Kan., through his grievous wound as a combat infantryman in World War II and on to his long and painful physical rehabilitation and rise in the world of politics. The message, said Thomas D. Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general and a key Dole supporter here, is that because of these experiences, Dole understands the country and its people, that he holds "a set of values you share."

"There is no question that Bob Dole knows who we are," Rath said.

But this Dole often seems in conflict with the other -- the Senate Republican leader, the man who has spent a political lifetime "working it out" in the back rooms of Capitol Hill. And it was in this role, the one in which he is most comfortable, that Dole visited New Hampshire this weekend, leaving few clues about himself except that he is a man who "can get things done."

His message was not about values but about political and legislative expertise. As in the television debate, his carefully hedged answers to questions sometimes sounded like one of his daily colloquies with Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) on the Senate floor, where the name of the game is to make no public commitments until after the votes are counted.

"The American people want a hands-on president, someone who understands the Congress, who would get things done," he said. "I am hands-on . . . . I have made a difference."

But a difference for what? After a televised debate performance that Rath called an improvement over the first in Houston but "not where he should be," Dole's GOP opponents are beginning to press that question.

"Here's a guy who wants it both ways," said a senior adviser to Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) who asked not to be identified. "He's the Republican Lyndon Johnson."

An uncommitted Pennsylvania Republican who is leaning toward Dole said Dole does not appear to be doing well compared with Vice President Bush, although he could still overtake Bush should Bush falter. Asked why, this source, who also requested anonymity, said:

"If you don't have a message you feel strongly about, that {television} tube brings it out . . . . He wants it {the presidency}, but he doesn't know why he wants it. And you can't project your strength without a message."

"I think what Dole is going through is an innate problem," said former South Dakota governor William Janklow, a Bush supporter. "He's been a legislative leader so long that he cannot make a decisive statement on anything."

Dole's supporters offer more charitable explanations for his noncommittal responses to questions about the INF treaty, the majority and minority reports of the Iran-contra committees, and the possibility of pardons for former White House aides John M. Poindexter and Oliver L. North if they are indicted.

Although most of his supporters say Dole will probably back the INF treaty, for the moment he is refusing to budge from his careful straddle on that and other issues.

"I'm not in the middle; I'm in the Senate," he said in an interview. "That's the difference."

Dole acknowledged that the role he has chosen "is kind of tricky."

"A lot of people think, well, the president is for it, that's it. Maybe it is temporarily a problem. But I think people will understand. I'm independent and have a different role to play in the institution."

As to concepts such as offering a "vision" for the country's future as he campaigns for president, Dole was almost contemptuous.

"We covered all that in our {announcement} speech," he said. "Maybe you missed it. Opportunity and security. There, those are visionary words."

Rath argues that Dole's inclination to remain in the minority-leader role can be turned to his advantage in an election in which voters may be looking less for vision than competence. "He's the player," Rath said. "He's the one who can do something."

But Rath also acknowledges that Dole must return more often to the "shared values" theme and finally rid himself of "the 1980 ghost" that may be haunting him.

"It's like that song, 'I'll Never Fall in Love Again,' " he said. "You hold back. He's not doing it now, but it took a long time."

Staff writer David S. Broder contributed to this report.