Elizabeth Hanford Dole was raised customarily and appropriately for a well-to-do girl half a century ago. It was not all white gloves and crossed ankles.

Like most bright girls of the time, she was encouraged to form her mind and exercise leadership, with the expectation that she would one day make sparkling conversation and preside at the garden club.

Her mother, the charming Mary Ella Cathey Hanford, was entirely traditional. She wept when she learned that Elizabeth needed glasses at the age of 3, because she knew that men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses. She worried when her daughter showed no aptitude for sewing, and was stricken when Elizabeth majored in political science rather than home economics.

When her daughter announced her desire to attend law school, Mary Hanford threw up. "Don't you want to be a wife, a mother and a hostess for your husband?" she asked.

There would be no garden clubs for Elizabeth Dole. Instead, she took her law degree to Washington, where she pursued a hugely successful career at the expense of things maternal and domestic. Now she is a Republican candidate for president of the United States, if not the first woman to run for the office then certainly, according to the pundits, the most credible.

But her mother isn't sick about it. Inch by inch, year by year, mom became a feminist.

Now nearing 100, Mary Hanford still lives in the elegant Tudor-style house on the best street of prosperous Salisbury, N.C. One morning not long ago, she gently but firmly lectured a guest: "I wish you would bring out all the things she has accomplished. She's done far more than any of these men have done. They haven't done an airport or a train station. She's been selected by presidents for important positions. But she's been so quiet about it -- she hasn't bragged.

"You would bring these things out if she were a man."

Elizabeth Dole, 63, brought her mother along gently, always paying homage to the old values even as she revolutionized them. In the same way, she has helped to change the thinking of many Americans about the role of women. Dole is a transitional figure, connecting the long past in which a woman could not seriously run for president with the likely future in which women will run as a matter of course.

The role suits her perfectly, because she is equal parts past and future. She is a medium between them, coaxing the past forward while swaddling the future in a cross-stitched cozy.

This is the root of her popularity, and her popularity is the basis of her campaign. It may also be one of her biggest problems. Could it be that the people who love Elizabeth Dole for her traditional qualities aren't yet ready for a female president, while the people who are ready for a woman would prefer someone more overtly modern?

For weeks, there have been rumors that Dole might close down her trailblazing campaign for lack of support -- rumors that on Monday she put to rest, for now, by announcing that she will make a formal declaration of her candidacy next month in her home town.

Despite a strong third-place showing in the August Iowa straw poll, Dole has lost momentum to Arizona Sen. John McCain in the race to be the leading alternative to galloping front-runner George W. Bush. Her campaign has suffered from weak organization, failing to capitalize on the intense early interest in her candidacy, and in recent weeks, her husband, former senator Robert J. Dole, has been canvassing his longtime fund-raisers for help in keeping his wife's hopes alive.

But her steady decline in the polls may also reflect an ambivalence about Dole herself. Popularity has not translated widely into passion.

An Early Maturity

See her on the campaign trail: She has the posture, makeup and well-spoken demeanor of a beauty pageant contestant, which she used to be. No matter how rigorous the campaign schedule, her clothes are immaculate and perfectly coordinated. She favors the peacock palette of the country-club Republican wife -- not just Manhattan black and Washington power reds, but also light blues, bright yellows, vibrant greens. Her hair is conservative, her smile is full and even, her manner is earnest. Her cadence and honey accent make instantly clear where she got the nickname Sugarlips. She looks the absolute flower of the Old South.

But she has the record of a classic Washington rapid riser, and the reputation of a goal-setting, image-conscious, workaholic boss. She's pushing a tough-on-foreign-policy, hawkish-on-defense platform. Like her mother, she insists that she is far more experienced in capital intrigue and accomplishment than her Republican opponents.

In part because of stereotypes -- and in part because of her own careful straddling of archetypes -- she is hard to get a fix on.

Her roots are definitely old-fashioned. There was nothing progressive, nothing cutting-edge, about Salisbury in 1936, when Elizabeth Hanford was born, the second child of a wealthy florist and his well-bred wife.

To this day she tells interviewers that understanding Salisbury is the key to understanding her. What was the Salisbury of Dole's youth? A beautiful, comfortable, insular, traditional and friendly place. All of that is deep within her -- except the insularity. Secretly, she always yearned to get away.

But in a staid little city, Elizabeth was an unconventional youngster. The striking thing about her childhood is that she was never really a child.

"She always emulated the adults," says John Van Hanford, her only sibling. When Elizabeth was born, Johnny was already 13 years old. From her earliest years, she was desperate to be a part of his circle. She pestered her brother and his friends in the third-floor rec room of the Hanford house. One day, Mary Hanford found her daughter in the living room and asked what she was doing.

"Johnny said if I came down here and counted to 500 he would give me a quarter," the girl answered. Then she brightened and headed for the stairs. "But I've decided I don't need the money!"

Her brother's classmates elected her school mascot when she was 4, the first in a virtually unbroken line of successes. Her own account of her school years is more of a resume than an idyll: In third grade she organized a bird club; in seventh grade, she started a book club, appointed herself president and kept meticulous minutes; she won the favorite-teacher essay contest and the fire-prevention essay contest.

"She was overly conscientious and wanted to please so bad," her second-grade teacher, Elaine Richards, told a biographer. When she played with other children she was the natural leader -- and that's the way she liked it.

Mature, irrepressible, eager to please, Elizabeth was an untroubled blend of her parents' personalities. John Hanford Sr. was a serious and successful businessman who awakened while his family slept to organize his day into to-do lists. Mary Hanford was the lighter side, an engaging raconteuse and flawless hostess. Their daughter was a smiling chatterbox with a will to perfection.

Mother and daughter both remember the day when the girl, just 7 or 8 years old, forgot a school book and was sent the four blocks or so home to retrieve it.

"By the time she got here she was sobbing," says Mary Hanford. "She was sure that her life was ruined by this awful mistake."

John Van Hanford has heard his sister criticized many times as a perfectionist. But he captures the family spirit when he asks, "What's wrong with trying to be perfect?"

In fact, even now, most families would dream of a child like Elizabeth. She was not only smart and pretty; she was well-liked and generous. There were less fortunate children in her class -- "they didn't have a cook at home," says Mary Hanford. Elizabeth sought them out at lunch time, offering to trade her nice meals for their paltry sandwiches.

In this way she hasn't changed.

A few years ago, Mary Hanford was driving through a town near Salisbury and stopped for gas. The attendant recognized her. His wife had been a schoolmate of Elizabeth. Now she was suffering from cancer. Dole flew the family to Washington. She showed them around the White House. Later, she sent her old classmate the money she needed for medicine.

Dole is very much the person who, once upon a time, might have been known in Salisbury as "a fine Christian lady." By all accounts, this is entirely genuine. Her public demeanor and private demeanor are "pretty much the same," her brother says.

Building a Leadership Record

The other side of Elizabeth Dole is also entirely genuine.

In high school, Elizabeth Hanford ran for student body president. "More and more the modern world is giving women a big part to play," she said in her campaign speech. "Women must keep pace." She blames her loss on the sexism of the times. (One girl had held the office, she said, but "her father had died and there was a lot of sympathy for her.") After that, she was through with losing.

Dole attended Duke University, which was, in the late '50s, divided into two campuses -- the West Campus for men and the East for women. Student government was much more serious on the East Campus. Elected women's student government president in 1957 on a platform of "gung-ho" modernism, Elizabeth Hanford led a campaign on both campuses to create an honor code. At year's end she was chosen the outstanding leader on both campuses.

Throughout her youth, as she became conscious of her aspirations, she dealt with her mother's anxiety -- and perhaps with her own fears -- by masking the extent of her drive. She entered beauty pageants; she painted the frames of her glasses to match her outfits.

Later, a more pivotal moment: At Duke, Elizabeth wore the fraternity pin of a Davidson College boy named Richard Jones. He was the scion of the leading family of lawyers in Franklin, N.C., and he -- like Mary Hanford -- believed they would be married when they graduated.

"You know, practically every young woman that I had graduated high school with and college just went right into marriage and settling down," Dole says now. "And I suddenly thought, `Whoa, wait a minute, I'm not ready to get a ring here.' This fraternity pin's very nice, but when you're talking about a ring, that's pretty serious. I just felt this pull to live in another part of the country and to broaden my horizons and to go to graduate school. There were so many things I wanted to do."

Forty years later, Jones politely declines to talk about the breakup. "What she is now is what people should be interested in," he says. "She has always been an intelligent, lovely and, uh, a progressive individual."

Dole says her parents "always thought -- or hoped, anyway," that she would come home. She encouraged them to think it. She says she "never had a blueprint," that she sought only adventure and "enriching experiences." But looking back, it is difficult to see anything but a straight and unerring line. Indeed, her adult resume is a monument of pioneering feminism.

Dole was an early female graduate of Harvard Law School, attending at a time when one professor still insisted on allowing women to speak in class only on "Ladies Day." She considered practicing law in New York or Boston but chose Washington because it offered the most room for her interests and ambition. "At that time, I think the government, definitely, the doors were more open to women," she says.

She was a savvy and largely apolitical striver, serving first as a Democrat in the fledgling consumer affairs bureau in the Johnson White House, then shifting deftly into the Nixon administration. She chose a woman, Virginia Knauer, as her mentor, and Knauer eventually boosted her into her first starring role, touting her for an opening on the Federal Trade Commission.

Dole has often spoken of her career as a string of happy opportunities. It is not ladylike, in the Salisbury sense, to clutch and claw. But when she was told that she lacked the necessary endorsements to win the FTC appointment, she quickly hopped a plane to a convention of trade organizations and went from one key person to another promoting herself. She got what she wanted.

That was 1972. Three years later, she married Bob Dole, a rising Republican. The next year, when her husband was picked to run for vice president with Gerald R. Ford, she distinguished herself as a formidable campaigner. "My southern strategy," her husband famously called her.

From then on, her career rose on a track parallel to her husband's. They became one of Washington's first modern power couples: He came to dominate the Senate, while she moved easily in and out of administration roles -- including two tours as a Cabinet secretary -- depending on whether her husband was running for president.

When Bob was beaten in the primaries by Ronald Reagan in 1980, Elizabeth stepped smoothly into the Reagan campaign, and she was rewarded with a job in the West Wing. She served as head of the Office of Public Liaison -- the smiling, listening, charming face of any White House -- where her job was to deal with America's grasping array of pleading interests.

By 1982, the Republicans realized that a significant "gender gap" had opened up -- women were markedly more likely than men to vote Democratic. The Reagan people looked around for women to promote. Dole was named secretary of transportation, one of two women promoted to the Cabinet -- another was appointed to the Supreme Court -- in hopes of solving the problem.

Though many were skeptical of her qualifications, over time she compiled a solid record, according to several longtime department observers. Dole pushed local jurisdictions to take over the Washington area airports, a task that had seemed impossible for nearly 50 years, and thus paved the way for the expansion of Dulles International and the construction of the new Reagan National Airport terminal.

The government-owned freight railway, Conrail, was put up for sale; Union Station was refurbished; under pressure from the courts, air bags were mandated in new cars.

Dole became known for her attention -- some would say obsession -- with detail, and her detractors suspected that no detail was more important than her own image and future. There was a revealing moment in 1984. Reporters were summoned to the California desert to watch a demonstration of a new, fire-resistant jet fuel that Dole's department was touting as a major improvement in air safety.

A remote-controlled Boeing jetliner loaded with the new fuel glided toward a controlled crash. As hundreds of VIPs and reporters watched, the big plane smashed into the dry ground and burst into a spectacular fireball. The news conference proceeded as planned -- minus one speaker. Elizabeth Dole had hightailed it out of there, leaving her longtime assistant, Mari Maseng Will, to field a barrage of questions.

The pattern of her career repeated itself at the end of the Reagan years: Dole left the administration to help plot her husband's campaign strategy and make his case for the 1988 Republican nomination. After he lost, she went to work for the victor, George Bush, this time as secretary of labor.

It was not much of a job. As one Bush administration official says, "We didn't care anything about the Labor Department." Dole chafed for a chance to run her own show, and got it when she became head of the American Red Cross. The match seemed perfect -- one of America's most-admired women running one of the country's most-admired institutions.

Dole managed her career shrewdly and drove her staff hard. She has been known to require her assistants to count the number of steps from her seat to the podium when she is preparing for a speech. Nevertheless, people tend to be very loyal to her, perhaps because they know that she drives herself much harder.

The Personal and Political

So there it is: Elizabeth Dole, the Salisbury Sweetheart, is a hard-charging, ambitious, very skillful politician. She likes power -- for the good she can do with it, and because power is the mark of political success. She is competitive, and she has the discipline and the skills to win.

But just as she gently brought her parents to terms with her life, she has been careful never to offend the American public. For 20 years after her marriage, she insisted in nearly every interview that she would love to have a house and a little garden to putter in -- "but there is never time" to find one. Given the number of workaholic millionaires with houses in Washington, it is hard to believe that is the whole story. The apartment she shares with her husband in the Watergate, five minutes from work and from the airport, was perfect -- but it didn't fit the traditional image.

She often says that she never had to choose between children and career. "I married late in life. Bob and I both felt if we were fortunate enough to have children, that would be wonderful. But we realized that we were, this was, in terms of our ages, a late marriage in terms of having children. And our feeling was if that does not happen, uh, we have so many opportunities to make a difference for a lot of children."

But in fact she did realize that children would be an impediment. Asked if she considered adopting, she answers: "We talked about it a bit, but it never quite reached the point of really, no, not a serious option. Because we were both so involved in what we were doing and I think at that point felt we had a chance really to make a difference for others and we're, we're -- both of us felt very, um, passionately about what we were doing."

There is a revealing example of this practice of packaging a hard-driving reality in a gentle wrapper in "Unlimited Partners," a book she wrote jointly with her husband. Elizabeth tells the story of one wedding anniversary when the power couple was apart. She was in Iowa, campaigning for her husband, and Bob Dole arranged a special treat for the occasion -- dinner with some state party officials. She recounts the moment as if it were a surprise candlelight dinner.

Who knows how long Elizabeth Dole has secretly envisioned a bid for the ultimate success in her field? She has talked about it for at least 15 years -- but always jokingly. At the 1984 Gridiron Dinner, Bob Dole announced that "under no circumstances would Dole be a candidate" for president that year.

Leaping to her feet, Elizabeth cried out, "Speak for yourself, sweetheart."

The couple joked about her presidential possibilities with reporters at the 1984 Republican convention, and Elizabeth began showing up regularly on lists of women who might someday run. By 1996, after she wowed the convention in San Diego by making the case for her husband with far more polish and conviction than he could ever muster, people were saying openly that she was the better candidate of the two.

Elizabeth Dole was mentioned in the late '70s as a possible congressional candidate in North Carolina. More recently, she considered running for governor in her home state. Either choice might have put her on the road to the White House. (As it is, she is trying to become the first civilian with no elective experience to reach the White House since Herbert Hoover.)

Instead, she built her reputation on wifely loyalty, learning the ropes and honing her skills as a campaigner in the service of her husband's dream.

Past and future.

"Let's make history!" Dole tells the large audiences who come out to see her campaign. She has already done so, though as a bridge. Not yet as a destination.