PETERBOROUGH, N.H., FEB. 13 -- Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) is at one of those rare, personal moments in politics when every instinct of the veteran campaigner tells him that he is going to win.

Eight years ago, he came to the snow-covered towns of this first presidential primary state and was humiliated. He says he can recall the exact number of votes he received -- 592.

But when things are going your way, as they are for Dole, even a distant defeat can be turned to advantage. And so today, standing on the stage of the Peterborough Town Hall before a friendly crowd of more than 300 people, Dole transformed the humiliation of 1980 into an element of his 1988 campaign theme -- that he has the toughness to lead the country into the 1990s.

"A lot of people said then you'll never run for office again because the people turned you down flat," he said. "I said no, it doesn't work that way. You've got to be tested, and you've got to fail and you've got to get up again and try it one more time."

The audience applauded, and then Dole said something he had not dared to utter in public until now: "If Bob Dole can win in this state, I might even be president. That's how important it is."

Dole's instincts are supported by public opinion surveys. Tracking polls by The Washington Post and ABC News taken Wednesday through Friday show a surging Dole with 30 percent and Vice President Bush with 29 percent, a virtual dead heat.

But perhaps more important than the current standings of the Republican front-runners is the trend, which is clearly in the direction of Dole, who easily won the Iowa caucuses Monday and has demolished the once-substantial lead Bush enjoyed here.

Interviews Friday night showed Dole sweeping past Bush, who finished an embarrassing third in Iowa behind Dole and former television evangelist Pat Robertson. Although the sample size for the Friday poll was too small to draw firm conclusions, the trend holds ominous implications for the vice president.

The Wednesday-through-Friday polling this week showed Robertson with 11 percent. He is in a virtual three-way tie for third place with Rep. Jack Kemp of New York (12 percent) and former Delaware governor Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV (11 percent).

Richard B. Wirthlin, Dole's pollster, said internal campaign surveys show the same trends, with undecided voters breaking strongly for Dole and against Bush.

But with every passing day since the Iowa results, the prospect of a Dole victory has seemed closer, infusing the Dole campaign entourage with a visible sense of growing confidence.

So, too, has the confidence of the candidate visibly grown since he decisively turned back Bush's one chance for a quick, clean knockout in Dole's native Midwest. Unlike Bush, he has not sought to change his basic campaign message but has refined and focused it, delivering his stump speech with the buoyancy of a politician who is on a roll.

Dole's central theme is "leadership," a word he repeats countless times in his speech. His message is that because of his background -- the poor Kansas farm boy who overcame a grievous war wound to become the Senate's Republican leader -- he has the proven record to lead the GOP to victory in November and govern the country beyond.

"I can make a difference," Dole says at every campaign stop. "I have made a difference."

"Leadership is driving this election," said Thomas D. Rath, a key Dole strategist here.

The best evidence that Rath's assessment is correct began airing on New Hampshire television stations tonight in the form of a new Bush campaign commercial that contrasts the vice president's "leadership" on issues such as the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear missiles with what it calls Dole's "straddling" on the same issues.

Meanwhile, in Wolfeboro, N.H., Bush today assailed Dole's performance on key initiatives sought by President Reagan. Bush blamed Dole for the rejection of Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork and the override of vetoes on the highway bill and clean water legislation.

"We wanted Robert Bork on the Supreme Court; the Senate says no, you can't get anywhere. The president and I want a line-item veto; we can't get any movement on it at all in the Senate," he said.

Bush had previously blamed the Bork defeat on Senate liberals.

On the highway bill, Bush said Reagan's veto would have saved $10 billion. "We needed 34 votes to sustain the veto. Bob tried, but to no avail," he said. "The clean water bill. We're all for clean water, another veto -- this time to save $12 billion . . . . All we needed was 34 votes to sustain the veto. In fairness, Bob Dole tried hard but to no avail."

Not long ago, the Bush-Dole rivalry began to take on a bitter, personal tone with charges and countercharges about the source and extent of each man's personal wealth. But beginning shortly before his Iowa victory, Dole has softened the edges of his often acid rhetoric and wit, passing up numerous chances to assail Bush while he does his best to appear "presidential."

Nonetheless, Dole has found ways to continue subtly to reinforce his portrait of Bush as a privileged political appointee who lacks a record of accomplishment on his own, an understanding of ordinary Americans and the toughness to deal with problems of the post-Reagan era.

In Jaffrey, N.H., this morning, Dole said voters should examine each candidate's "track record."

"What has he done that I can sort of get ahold of?" Dole said. "Not what he says, but a consistent record of concern for the American people . . . . You've got to grow up where the people are. You've got to keep your perspective as you climb the ladder."

Later, Dole asked the same audience:

"Who do you want seated across from {Soviet leader Mikhail} Gorbachev? Some people say Bob Dole is pretty tough. Well, you better hope I'm tough. We're talking about our future, about our children."

Dole was joined on the campaign trail today by former secretary of state Alexander M. Haig Jr., who dropped out of the GOP presidential race Friday and endorsed Dole.

The handling of Haig's endorsement was an example of the good fortune Dole has enjoyed since Iowa. Though Haig had almost no support here, his withdrawal announcement got extraordinary media attention, in part because a blizzard wiped out other candidates' campaigning on Friday. The television networks Friday night devoted long items to Haig's denunciation of Bush as ill-equipped to sit in the White House. "No, I frankly do not," Haig said Friday when asked whether he considers Bush "electable."

Donald Rumsfeld, a former defense secretary who explored a possible 1988 presidential run but thought better of it, flew to New Hampshire today to add his endorsement of Dole. At a news conference in Jaffrey, Rumsfeld said one reason he picked Dole over Bush is that "I want to see the Republican Party win in November."

Dole is clearly basking in that mysterious political commodity known as "momentum." Wirthlin estimates that Dole's win in Iowa boosted him by 10 to 12 points, pulling him even with Bush here. But momentum is more than polling numbers; it is also psychological, pumping up the candidate to perform better at a critical moment in the campaign.

Rath, a former attorney general of New Hampshire, noticed the change Tuesday when Dole arrived here from Des Moines. They went immediately to Concord, where Dole addressed a joint session of the New Hampshire legislature on the subject of foreign policy, the only major area where Wirthlin's polls show Bush holding an advantage.

"He's finally got the campaign he wants, that he's comfortable with," Rath said. "And he is an infinitely better candidate than he was a month ago."

At the end of the speech, Rath said he thought Dole "cracked up a little bit" with emotion.

"He looked out at that crowd, the legislature -- you know he never was able to speak to a joint session in 1980 -- and then he came back in the room upstairs in the speaker's office and I do think right at the end a couple of times he started to choke it up," Rath said.

"And I said to the guys traveling with him," he added, "I think for the first time he realizes that he could be president of the United States." Staff writer David Hoffman contributed to this report.