EXETER, N.H. — THERE is something about New Hampshire that doesn't love Bob Dole.
The senator from Kansas ran into a granite wall here the last two times he sought the GOP nomination. Now, after enjoying a seemingly unconquerable lead for almost a year, Mr. Dole once again appears on the verge of barely winning - or perhaps even losing - the New Hampshire primary.
Ironically, Dole may not need New Hampshire this time. He has the money and enough party endorsements across the country to recover down the road. But if he loses here and still captures the nomination, he will be the first Republican to do so, and a poor finish could portend problems for the party in the fall.
''New Hampshire is Bob Dole's recurring nightmare,'' says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. ''Even now, the best scenario for him is a fairly grim one - that he'll win with a relatively small percentage of votes.''
So what is it about the senator that blends with New Hampshire about as well as wheat fields with the White Mountains?
''Let's just talk about this year,'' says former New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman, resisting the invitation to draw parallels from Dole's previous loses in 1980 and 1988. ''When any political figure has between $5 million and $6 million spent tearing him apart, based mainly on false advertising, somebody benefits by that. In this case it's not Mr. Forbes - who spent the money - but everybody else.''
Indeed, media mogul Steve Forbes cut into Dole's support last month with a flurry of negative TV advertisements. And while Forbes stumbled in Iowa, finishing fourth, both Pat Buchanan and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander surged.
Dole's campaign has done everything it could in the past week to ward off Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Alexander. He launched a new round of negative TV advertisements himself against the duo. Party heavyweights have been pulled in for every Dole event. And the senator has modified his message, borrowing themes from his rivals and repackaging his economic ideas.
Dole has also been more visible than at any time during the campaign. He braved a snowstorm Saturday to help former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu shovel his driveway. But Professor Pitney sees an unmistakable thread running through Dole's three presidential campaigns here. GOP front-runners, by tradition, win both New Hampshire and the nomination. By rights, Dole shouldn't have so much trouble this year. That he does, Pitney says, reflects his record on taxes.
New Hampshire voters, who do not pay a state income tax, take up polling levers against anyone who waffles on revenues. During the 1980 race, Ronald Reagan exploited the tax-revolt wave that started in California two years earlier and won the primary. Dole, meanwhile, was a member of the Senate's tax-writing committee.
Eight years later, Vice President George Bush won the primary by promising not to raise taxes and bashing Dole's record. The senator had helped push through a tax hike in 1982, and as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee overhauled the tax code in 1986. The new plan closed loopholes and raised rates for some brackets. Though Dole now pledges not to raise taxes, his record on taxes may cause suspicion among Granite Staters.
''Someone with the political history and stature of Bob Dole should do a lot better than one-third of the vote in New Hampshire,'' Pitney says. ''New Hampshire's long memory of Bob Dole's stand on taxes is coming back.''
Jerry Carmen, chairman of the New Hampshire GOP, draws a somewhat different contrast between Dole and Mr. Reagan: Dole doesn't connect as well with voters as the former president did. ''Dole is a stoic person,'' Mr. Carmen says. ''He's reserved. He's so knowledgeable, but the problem is he's ... from a different generation in which you don't show emotion. You don't show that phony feeling that everyone else tries to generate.''
Not that the senator isn't trying. At a rally inside a packed high school gymnasium in Exeter Saturday night, Dole entered under thundering theme music from the Chicago Bulls basketball team. Balloons fell. Congressman Bill Zeliff (R) of New Hampshire danced.
BUT Dole seems more comfortable on the Chamber of Commerce circuit. The night before, in front of a gathering of blue blazers, he laid out newly packaged economic themes. The speech was sober and policy heavy.
It brought together for the first time the senator's economic proposals under a new banner he called ''Dolenomics.'' He listed ''four freedoms of economic security:'' freedom from federal deficits, unreasonable taxation, and excessive regulations, and freedom to compete in a fair marketplace.
If the speech was an attempt to counter critics who say Dole lacks ideas and vision, it was also an effort to portray the candidate as a true conservative. ''The object is to show that Dole is the best, solidest conservative in the race,'' says Dave Carney, a senior adviser to the senator's campaign, ''and the only Republican who can beat Bill Clinton.''
The tight race may have helped Dole focus his message, but few were willing to predict the outcome. As Rep. Charles Bass (R) of New Hampshire says: ''Bush had trouble in this state, Nixon had trouble in this state, and Goldwater had trouble in this state. You don't just walk away with the nomination.''