Robert J. Dole returned to the campaign trail today, calling on old political friends to help Elizabeth Dole's bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

Dole, the unsuccessful Republican presidential nominee in 1996, said he and his wife make a powerful team, with each having long ties to Iowa and Elizabeth Dole having the ability to attract "women and others who have felt a little distant from our party."

"I think what she does is she puts a smile on the face of the Republican Party," Dole said.

This was his initial campaign swing on her behalf, and he met with longtime backers and worked to raise money in western Iowa and Omaha today.

He conceded that Texas Gov. George W. Bush is the front-runner but said his wife has the skills and assets needed to make it a race.

"We are not going to have a coronation, we're going to have a process here," Dole said.

Elizabeth Dole has said repeatedly that her husband has stayed away from the campaign trail to allow her to establish her own identity. While she has campaigned for decades on her husband's behalf, this is her first race on her own.

"It's her campaign, it's not my campaign," Dole said. "You know I want to be helpful, just as she was helpful to me."

Campaign aides said the former Senate majority leader brings a particular ability to the race after having twice won Iowa's precinct caucuses when he unsuccessfully sought the presidency.

He won the caucuses in 1988 before fading from the race and won them again in 1996.

Dole had raised some eyebrows when he joked earlier this spring about possibly giving some money to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who also is pondering a bid for the GOP nomination.

But he said today that any controversy over that issue has faded.

"I never was in the doghouse," he said. "You can have friends in this business and still be loyal to your number one candidate, and that is Elizabeth."

Dole said his wife is carefully building a campaign organization but the real campaign is months away.

"There are not that many people listening now," Dole said. "I mean all the political junkies are listening. I bet 90 percent of the American people haven't tuned yet on the election."

CAPTION: Robert J. Dole is on familiar turf in Council Bluffs, Iowa, talking to Mike Jones, a GOP supporter, about his wife's presidential aspirations.