Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) telephoned Small Business Administration head James C. Sanders in 1983 to ask him to help get a government contract for a former aide, according to an ex-SBA official who said Sanders had told him of the call.

Dole has acknowledged that his office helped the aide but repeatedly has denied personally making any phone calls to help the former aide, John Palmer. Asked yesterday whether he had called Sanders on Palmer's behalf, Dole said: "I don't think I ever did. I think the only thing that happened was he {Sanders} may have called afterwards {after the contract was awarded more than two years later}. I have a memo that said don't call; write."

Robert T. Lhulier, former chief of staff to Sanders, Tuesday told staff aides to the House Small Business Committee that Sanders had told him about the call. Sanders, who earlier had denied any conversation with Dole, yesterday said in an interview with The Washington Post, ". . . If Bob Lhulier recalls that I did, I must have."

The committee staff yesterday released a memorandum detailing the interview with Lhulier, one day after it had released a preliminary report that exonerated Dole but suggested irregularities in the awarding of the Army contract and called on the Justice Department to continue the investigation.

Dole's role in the contract has become a sensitive issue in his presidential campaign. It resurfaced yesterday when George Wittgraf, Vice President Bush's Iowa campaign chairman, referred to the SBA controversy and other issues and accused the senator of a "record of cronyism." Dole called that "pathetic, desperate criticism." {Details, Page A20.}

Members of Congress frequently call the SBA and other agencies to seek aid for constituents and associates. Dole and his staff always have said the office worked to help Palmer compete for the contract. But the question of whether Dole personally intervened in the Palmer case has assumed larger-than-normal importance in Dole's presidential campaign because of Dole's denials and because questions have been raised about the propriety of the contract.

On Tuesday, the House committee released documents indicating that the $26 million government contract was far larger than Palmer's company, EDP Enterprises, was qualified to get. The documents also showed that a one-time close political ally of Dole, David C. Owen, profited by at least $149,000 from Palmer's contract, issued through an SBA program to aid minority-own firms.

Owen resigned from his post as a national finance chairman of the Dole campaign on Jan. 14 amid indications that he had mingled his companies' finances with those of the blind trust of Dole's wife, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, when Owen was the trust's investment adviser.

Sen. Dole, campaigning in Forest City, Iowa, said yesterday he is being investigated by a "Democratic staff group in the House. Republicans were not even notified that it was going on. The staff is working very closely with The Washington Post. That's not even fair."

When first asked whether Dole had phoned him, Sanders two weeks ago said he had not talked to Dole and said he "would have remembered" a conversation with the then-Senate majority leader. Four days later, Sanders said he "should have said" he could not recall having spoken to Dole and that it was "very possible" he had. Yesterday, Sanders, who now is president of the Beer Institute, said: "I have no recollection of talking to him, but if Bob Lhulier recalls that I did, I must have."

According to Lhulier, Sanders called him into his office and said that. Dole had just called him "to request that the SBA try to help one his former aides, John Palmer" and said Lhulier soon would hear from Dole's administrative assistant, Mitchell (Mike) Pettit. About five minutes after that conversation, Pettit called Lhulier and a meeting was arranged.

Present at the meeting, according to committee documents, were Pettit, Palmer, Lhulier and Owen. The committee staff memorandum said Lhulier found that "Palmer did not have much business background or knowledge about" the minority program.

Owen later was paid $149,000 in consulting fees in 1986 by Palmer's company, which had virtually no assets, no income and no office before it obtained the three-year contract to supply the mess halls at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. Owen also borrowed and repaid $131,500 from EDP, Palmer's firm, and sold a half-interest in a jet worth at least $97,700 to EDP.

Small Business Committee Chairman John J. LaFalce (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday that the situation was "replete with appearances of improper activities to direct the award of the contract to EDP." The documents described what one SBA official said were "persistent" efforts by Pettit to see that EDP got the contract.

But LaFalce said the staff report exonerated Dole. On the floor of the House Tuesday, hours before his aides interviewed Lhulier, LaFalce said Dole was not personally involved in any "questionable event or occurrence" relating to the contract.

Asked yesterday why Lhulier was not interviewed until after the staff report and documents were released, LaFalce said he had wanted to turn the information the staff had gathered over to the Justice Department as soon as possible.

Staff writer Bill Peterson in Iowa contributed to this report.