When a brooding Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) stared into a television camera Tuesday night and told Vice President Bush to "stop lying about my record," he instantly revived an image that stems from his early political career and particularly his 1976 campaign as the Republican vice presidential candidate.

It is the image of Dole as a slashing, partisan "hatchetman" who plays the game of politics according to his own rules or no rules at all.

In the aftermath of that stunning moment of television, and of Dole's loss Tuesday to Bush in the New Hampshire presidential primary, associates of the Senate minority leader rushed to his defense yesterday. Several of his Senate Republican colleagues called a news conference to defend his record on taxes and other issues against the Bush campaign charges that provoked his televised outburst.

One Dole supporter, fellow Kansas Republican Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, also complained that Dole was subjected to a "double standard."

"The vice president lashes out in sometimes rather crude language and no one says anything," she said.

Double standard or not, it is part of the context of the 1988 Republican presidential contest and one that Dole and his advisers were well aware was fraught with peril for him. According to one source, Dole's campaign manager, William E. Brock III, frequently urged Dole to "keep smiling," to which the candidate, whose sometimes acid wit is irrepressible, replied, "After a while, people are going to ask who is that jerk who is always going around smiling."

It is a battle of perceptions, and just as Bush must be wary of anything that feeds the so-called "wimp factor" in his public persona, Dole must guard against a revival of what Rich Bond, a senior Bush campaign aide, gleefully described as his "Darth Vader" image.

The image no longer fits the reality, according to Dole supporters who insist that he has mellowed and matured, finally overcoming a deep personal bitterness that was probably rooted in the crippling wound he suffered as a 21-year-old combat infantryman in Italy in 1945.

"I was really struck by how mellow, polite, open and friendly he was compared to those old days," said Norman (Skip) Watts, the political director of the Dole campaign. "I think it is a pretty fundamental change that has to do with age," the influence of his second wife, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, and the success he has achieved in the Senate.

Watts last worked closely with Dole in 1976, when Watts was a senior deputy in President Gerald Ford's campaign and Dole was the vice presidential candidate. Dole was chosen, in part, for his sharp tongue and extreme partisanship, and assigned by Ford and campaign manager Stuart Spencer to "take on the world," especially the Democratic candidates, Jimmy Carter and Walter F. Mondale, Watts said.

Dole seemed "comfortable" in the role, he added.

It was during a nationally televised debate with Mondale in that campaign that Dole made the memorable charge that all the Americans killed in armed conflict in this century were the victims of "Democrat wars."

Watts said Dole "doesn't seem to have that jugular instinct as the automatic reaction to stimuli." But even Dole's strongest supporters do not claim that he has undergone a complete personality change. And some voters still perceive that he has a mean streak. According to NBC News exit polls in New Hampshire, 30 percent of the voters surveyed said they agreed that Dole has a mean streak, while 30 percent disagreed and 40 percent said they were not sure.

One associate described Dole as "demanding" and said the candidate's temper can still flare, as it did in the Tuesday television interview and earlier that day when he told a pestering New Hampshire voter to "get back in your cage." He has struggled with, but clearly not overcome, his tendency to try to do everything himself rather than rely on aides who frequently do not measure up to his standards.

"Sure, he puts people down, but no more than any other executive or leader," Watts said. "He may be a little harder on people than others, but that's one reason he has been so effective."

Dole's colleagues say the image of the slashing campaigner does not fit the GOP leader they know in the Senate. He can be a tough legislative infighter -- "I did not become majority leader to lose," Dole said in another memorable comment -- but in the Senate, several of his colleagues noted, he is at home and at ease and confident of his own abilities.

"What we're seeing out there is the 3 o'clock in the morning Dole," said a Senate aide who has watched him closely. "It's like he's not at home out there; he's not a natural campaigner."

Dole is now in his third campaign for national office. The first two, in 1976 and an abortive run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, ended in defeat. For the first time in his public life, he has forced himself to speak openly about the horrible war wound that turned a strapping, athletic youth into an emaciated, bed-ridden hospital patient. The experience left him bitter and disillusioned, Dole has told audiences this year.

But Dole and his advisers have also sought to turn the toughness that enabled Dole to overcome his injury into an asset, the counterpoint to the Bush "wimp" image that is the other side of the deeply personal contest between the two men.

"Who do you want sitting across from {Soviet leader Mikhail} Gorbachev?" he asked campaign audiences in New Hampshire.

"Some people say Bob Dole is pretty tough," he said at another campaign stop. "Well, you better hope I'm tough. It's the future we're talking about."

Until shortly before New Hampshire Republicans went to the polls Tuesday, Dole and his advisers appeared convinced that they had found the right blend to project both intrinsic toughness and external calm. The candidate was urged to appear "presidential," above the fray, and Dole complied. Even Tuesday afternoon, when television network exit polls indicated an impressive Bush win, "the coolest guy in the room was Dole," said one of his strategists.

But Tuesday night, when NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw asked Dole if he had anything to say to Bush, Dole unloaded on his opponent.

"We had a guy who was stretched to the limit," the Dole strategist said. "He was tired and disappointed. He also felt very angry and upset at what he thought was a serious distortion of his record. He was upset and lashing out at the most obvious source of it."

Dole has made clear since his New Hampshire defeat that he is dissatisfied with the "presidential" approach that dominated his campaign in the eight critical days following his victory in Iowa. He regrets now, aides say, that he did not "take the gloves off" when the Bush campaign assailed him with negative television commercials.

In doing so, Dole may be playing into the hands of the Bush campaign, but he appears willing to take that risk at what is only the beginning of a long and bitter battle between the two men.

Lee Atwater, Bush's campaign manager, denied yesterday that the Bush campaign had tried deliberately to provoke Dole into actions that would deepen the "hatchetman" image. He added, in an observation that applies as much to Bush as it does to Dole, "This is a grueling process and who you are and what you are comes out in the end."

Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.