Buoyed by her third-place "victory" in Saturday's Iowa straw poll, Elizabeth Dole predicted today that by the time the real ballots are cast next year Americans will choose her resume over the deep pockets of her leading Republican rivals.

Marketing herself as more viable than ever, Dole seized upon the fresh attention her Iowa performance has generated and said she would immediately begin wooing supporters of Lamar Alexander, who dropped out of the race today. But with the spotlight back on the only woman in the race, Dole--who boasts "I'm gonna tell it like it is"--also found herself struggling to do just that.

Asked in an interview whether she supports spending federal money to pay for abortions, Dole initially said she opposed using Medicaid dollars on the medical procedure. "I'm not for, ah, you know, federal funding for abortions," she said, seated in a conference room of a local business. "I'm for continuing the current situation, which prohibits federal funding for abortions."

Told that current law allows using Medicaid money for abortion in instances of rape, incest or when the woman's life is in danger, a Dole aide interrupted to dispute that. Then Dole said: "I have been in favor of continuing what we are doing now. I just want to be sure exactly what the current situation is. Let's don't pursue that further now because I need to check that."

The question of using tax dollars for abortions for poor women resurfaced as an issue last week when an aide to Vice President Gore misstated his position, saying that Gore supported Medicaid-funded abortions only in those three specific instances. His Democratic rival, Bill Bradley, seized the opening, saying it was inconsistent to support abortion rights only for women who can afford the procedure, which costs about $350. Eventually, Gore aides clarified his stance; now both he and Bradley want Medicaid to cover abortions for all recipients.

Dole has long supported legal abortions for women who are the victims of rape, incest or if the woman's health is jeopardized. But when asked whether she viewed the question of spending Medicaid funds for poor women's abortions as a fairness issue, Dole replied: "I think I am against federal funding for abortions."

Later, spokesman Mike Paranzino confirmed that Dole supports the current law.

Arizona Sen. John McCain is the only other Republican candidate who supports current law. Texas Gov. George W. Bush and former vice president Dan Quayle support Medicaid money only if the life of the woman is threatened. The rest oppose federal funding.

Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, criticized Dole: "It is disturbing that she doesn't know enough about the issue to know the current law. . . . We expect more from a candidate, especially one who is appealing to women in this campaign. . . . Her initial reaction tells you a lot about what she believes about access to abortion for the more vulnerable in our society."

Dole said during the interview that abortion is a topic the media raises to "stir Republicans up so they're fighting each other. . . . I just don't think we want to go down that path."

Dole also has made clear she plans to avoid a number of contentious issues. Making the rounds of Sunday talk shows, she repeatedly refused to take a stand in the dispute over teaching evolution in the schools. Asked for her reaction to a New Jersey court ruling that homosexuals be allowed to join the Boy Scouts, she said: "I think this will end up in the Supreme Court and let's see what they say about it."

As she toured a local high-tech firm and addressed the Manchester Rotary Club, Dole was upbeat and optimistic that her once-flagging candidacy has received the boost it needs for the fall sprint.

"Coming in with such a strong showing in the top three is significant and it is significant because we didn't spend millions of dollars," said Dole, who poked fun at the air-conditioned tents and fancy spreads of Bush and Steve Forbes. She spent about $250,000--a fraction of what the two front-runners in the poll spent.

Her 3,410 votes Saturday were a victory of "message over money, people over process," she said.

On the trail, Dole's 20-minute pitch has the feel of a verbal version of skipping stones across a New Hampshire pond. She quickly moves from education (more discipline) to military readiness (more money) to moral values. She is deeply critical of the Clinton-Gore administration, blaming it for lax security that allowed the Chinese to gather nuclear secrets and for "too much policy by polling."

Many in her audiences said they were impressed by Dole's smooth performance and liked the fact that she ran the nonpartisan Red Cross.

Mary Ann Flatten, a human resources executive, said after listening to Dole that she was ready to volunteer. "I need to feel a connection and I had that today," Flatten said, praising Dole for focusing on honesty, integrity and the country's drug scourge.

But at RealWorld Corp., some employees were noncommittal; a Dole volunteer collected only two new signatures on his supporter list. David Goyette said Dole was "good under the circumstances--she must be beat." But he felt Dole lacked the stature of other candidates, including Gore.

Jennifer Buck, a sales representative for the software firm, said she was happy to hear Dole is focused on reducing the national debt but she also likes Bradley's independent streak. "He has the great point of being an outsider, while Gore has spent his entire life, even as a child, involved in politics."

Dole, who joked to one audience that her husband, the 1996 GOP presidential nominee and former Senate majority leader, was home making the bed and doing other chores, has sent mixed signals about her political appeal along gender lines. Although she asserts she does not want people to vote for her because she is a woman, she now concludes each appearance with the line, "Let's make history."

Researcher Ben White in Washington contributed to this report.