She was once the hottest ticket on the Republican circuit, her splashy political debut last winter blared across the front pages.

Then came the painful bumps: Top adviser quits; fund-raising stalls; husband disses wife's prospects.

Now Elizabeth Dole--capitalizing on her gender, a strong showing in last month's Iowa straw poll and a series of upcoming policy speeches--is attempting to position herself as the undisputed No. 2 in a field dominated by Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Yet even as she enjoys a rare "second look" that other candidates only dream of, many political observers question whether Dole has the money, message or staff to convert her historic candidacy from novelty to nominee.

"In order to really have a chance against Bush, she has to emerge as the alternative and she hasn't," said Mickey Edwards, a Republican former congressman who teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

In recent weeks, Dole has flubbed her own position on abortion, refused to answer questions on issues ranging from the teaching of creationism to drug interdiction in Mexico and all but dropped from her campaign repertoire her single signature issue: gun control.

At the same time, the former Cabinet secretary continues to struggle with the sort of internal confusion that rarely merits headlines but often signals more vexing fundamental problems. Last week, Dole's communications director became the second major departure of a campaign that opened its doors just six months ago, following on the resignation of top strategist Kieran Mahoney. And after promoting what was to be Dole's first major policy address of the year, aides were forced to concede no firm date has been set.

"These are signs of a dysfunctional campaign," said one Dole family friend who is not involved in the campaign.

Spokesman Ari Fleischer, who is leaving the campaign for a yet-to-be-secured private sector job, said that in fact the delay showed the Dole campaign is "disciplined" enough to not be pressured into anyone else's timetable.

Yet even Dole's closest advisers express far more modest ambitions than when she burst onto the political stage last January after leaving her job as president of the American Red Cross.

"She definitely has a place at the table," campaign pollster Linda DiVall said after Dole placed third in last month's nonbinding straw poll in Ames, Iowa. But DiVall and others are careful to stress that the plan for this fall is to simply inch closer to Bush, not necessarily overtake him.

"Since Bush's rollout, we'd been eroding," said one top Dole strategist. "What Ames did is give us a certain amount of credibility." The goal now, said this campaign official, is to "close the margin some and then look for opportunities."

Dole has mapped out a fall calendar that calls for 20 fund-raisers this month, four meaty policy speeches over the next two months and a formal announcement tour in mid-October. A new fund-raising letter touting the Ames showing was mailed to several hundred thousand people in time for a big money push at the close of the third quarter.

In addition, Dole's advisers--and the candidate herself--have been increasingly willing to attack her Republican opponents. They dismiss publishing magnate Steve Forbes as a retread; argue that Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) is making a fatal miscalculation in bypassing Iowa; and say the rest of the bunch suffers from being white, Republican men.

Even Bush is in their sights. "If anyone has been vague on the issues, I think it's been George Bush," DiVall said.

The Dole strategy, as described by several of her top advisers, is to move from being viewed as an alternative to Bush, to becoming a credible alternative (which they say happened at the Ames straw poll) and finally emerge as the alternative. Yet no one in the Dole camp has articulated a strategy that catapults her to the nomination.

Although advisers publicly deny Dole has any desire for the vice presidential slot, in Ames some of her fund-raisers openly discussed the prospect of securing the second spot on the ticket.

Advisers believe Dole's four core issues--improving education, cutting taxes, rebuilding the military and eliminating the drug scourge--will resonate with voters. They insist there has been no conscious decision to abandon advocacy of gun control, but Dole did not find room to mention it in her 13-minute speech at the straw poll.

The Dole team estimates her status as the only female candidate brings an easy 10 to 12 percentage points. If the campaign is run well that could climb to as much as 20 points, one consultant said.

Because of the GOP's historic difficulty in wooing female voters, the campaign is even using gender to solicit contributions from people who have already written checks to other candidates such as Bush. "The party is well-served by a contest between Elizabeth Dole and George Bush," said Fleischer, describing the pitch.

Edwards agreed that the entire Republican Party benefits from Dole's presence in the race, but he added: "She is completely nuts if she thinks people will give her money because of that; people give because they want her to be president."

Others have substantive criticism as well. Conservative commentator Arianna Huffington described Dole as a typical inside-the-Beltway pol. Candidate Dole, Huffington noted, supports ethanol subsidies for Midwest farmers but opposed them as transportation secretary in the mid-1980s.

"She's so much of a good ol' boy pandering to special interests," Huffington said. "And her style is so canned and inauthentic at a time when we are all hungry for some authenticity."

But DiVall said voters respond well to Dole. "A lot of voters are yearning for a new look," DiVall said. "She has the integrity credential; has the compassionate credential from the Red Cross."

And with her tough talk on Kosovo and military readiness, supporters say Dole has overcome a familiar hurdle that women may not be perceived as strong on military issues.

"She's done a good job of becoming the Margaret Thatcher of the Republican Party," said Scott Reed, a consultant who ran former senator Robert J. Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.

Although he is not involved with this year's campaign, Reed suggested Elizabeth Dole move to the right "with a consistent, conservative message on taxes and social issues and crime" to reach GOP primary voters.

One potentially rich vein for Dole to tap is a well-documented desire in the nation for leaders who can address the declining value structure in America. Early in the campaign, she gave a much-advertised speech on pornography on the Internet, but she has made little mention of the subject since then and has failed to broaden that message.

"If you took her proprietary vote as being the only woman candidate and added to it a solid religious conservative market share," Dole would be a real threat, said one consultant advising Bush. "She'll get the women; she doesn't need an overt appeal on the typical soft issues like education, the environment. She'd need to make a run at the conservatives who will be dispositive in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina."

But for now Dole's political advisers are keeping the expectations low. "This is a party with a fairly egregious gender gap," said one of her top strategists. "That creates the impression that it makes some sense for Elizabeth Dole to be in this game. At this juncture, that's all you can ask."

CAPTION: With ambitious agenda planned for the fall, presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole addresses Georgia State Republican Foundation in Atlanta on Friday.