ATLANTA -- She is the Dole with the flawless manners, the one who never needs to be reminded to smile. His remarks are sprinkled with a few grains of arsenic for Vice President Bush; hers are strictly old lace.

Elizabeth Dole is a dream campaigner. She swaps kinfolk with blue-haired Confederate dames, poses for pictures and signs autographs for teen-agers as if there were nothing she would rather do. Her leave-takings have a polished warmth. To a worshipful group gathered around her after the Atlanta debate, she says, "I've just got to run; Bob will be backstage all by himself, wondering where in the world his wife is."

Her five-year tenure as secretary of transportation was controversial -- Ralph Nader thinks she was a flop as a safety secretary. But her credentials as her husband's "southern strategy" border on the awesome: A born-again southern belle from Salisbury, N.C., Phi Beta Kappa and May Queen at Duke, Harvard Law graduate -- and, according to a childhood friend, "disciplined and driven." Whether it is enough to save her husband in the South is in question right now.

The polls say no, but in that fashionably tousled brown head, there is, even after "the New Hampshire nightmare," no room for doubts. Her one mode is upbeat, her one gear, forward. She doesn't participate in formal strategy sessions, but she calls in from the road two or three times a day and often wakes up with three new ideas.

She resents it a little bit that people think she is effective only in the South -- "I've been in 42 of the 50 states." Says the Republican sage, John Sears, "You can take her anywhere."

Feminists were deeply disappointed that Elizabeth Dole quit the Cabinet to campaign full time for her husband. They found it too wifely by far.

"We all should have the right to make our own career decisions," she says. "My self-worth doesn't depend on being in a job with a title. This was what I wanted to do."

Her Monday morning mission is a visit to a homeless shelter run by the Christian Council that sleeps 103 women and 40 children in beds so close together there's hardly room to walk.

The encounter between the defeated women and the high-powered wife of the presidential candidate is a success. She moves in among the crowded beds and takes the hand of a mother of three, looks into her face and asks in dulcet and sincere tones how she is getting along. She listens to the answer.

To shelter officials, she echoes what her husband said the day before in the debate. When Bush gave the comforting view that "the primary cause of homelessness is mental illness," Sen. Robert J. Dole shot back, "George doesn't understand. It's just not somebody out there who's mentally ill. We've got mothers with children living in the backs of automobiles."

She's nice," said the mother. "And she's right. Most people here aren't mental. They got man trouble. Men beat them or left them."

Elizabeth Dole plunges into another room followed by a toddler searching for the center of the commotion. He finds her, lifts up his arms. She scoops him up expertly, cuddles him while the cameras click, and she elicits more data from the people in charge.

Heading to her next stop, she explains why the wife of a candidate wooing country-club Republicans has gone to a homeless shelter. "Look at Bob Dole's campaign, it's very much grass-roots, broad-based, about real people with real problems. He's overcome physical adversity. He's sensitized to people with problems beyond their control."

Too much the lady to criticize, she nonetheless takes a white-gloved poke at Bush. "You don't promote a person in business without looking at his performance. Why should you elect the leader of the free world who has no record of leadership?"

She hates a question about the intriguing political buzz about her: If Bush is nominated and asks her to be his running mate, will she accept?

She looks confused. "I haven't thought about it. I'm too busy trying to elect my husband president. I haven't focused on it." Obviously, she could just say no, but she doesn't. Some Republicans think she would take it in a minute -- and with Bob Dole's blessing.

She is terrifically ambitious and infinitely adaptable. Born a Democrat, she worked for President Lyndon B. Johnson, stayed on with Richard M. Nixon, changed her registration to independent. In 1975, when she married Bob Dole, she became a Republican. Once a fervent consumer advocate, she became a devout disciple of big business in the Reagan White House.

"She's a team player," says GOP consultant Ed Rollins. "And she and Bob have the kind of relationship that he's not frightened of her role. It would be petty of him and unlike him to discourage her."