GAITHERSBURG, MD. — BOB DOLE flashes a shy smile at the bank of television cameras lining the room and raises his left fist victoriously. ''I want you to know who Bob Dole is,'' the Senate Republican leader tells the enthusiastic crowd at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds here.
Then he ticks off his familiar rags-to-Senate biography: Father wore overalls to work in Russell, Kan., every day for 42 years. Mother sold Singer sewing machines across the state. Family lived in the basement of their home and rented out the upstairs ''to make a little money to make ends meet.''
He continues, ''Like a lot of other people, I went off to war. I wasn't crazy about it, but I did it.'' War injuries nearly killed him, but he survived and went on to build a distinguished career in Congress despite his physical disabilities.
This is the new Bob Dole - increasingly willing to open up to strangers about his hard life, and confident that the presidential nomination he has sought for 17 years may finally be within reach.
The transformation has accelerated in recent weeks as Dole faced a tougher-than-expected primary challenge. But now as he emerges from the shadows of his pursuers, his stump style is coming under increased scrutiny to see how it might stand up against President Clinton, an effective campaigner.
It may be coincidental, but as Dole's message has changed, so have his political fortunes. Last Saturday he won his first convincing win in a GOP primary, South Carolina's. Yesterday, he was poised for a string of victories in the ''Junior Tuesday'' primaries.
Not just another guy in a gray suit
Though Dole's story is worthy of Hollywood, the diffident Kansan has balked at revealing much in speeches, until recently. The evolution in Dole's style is no accident: Campaign aides and colleagues in the Senate have urged him to go more personal, to help the public get beyond the dour politician with the gravelly voice who seems most at home in the well of the Senate. But Dole had to do it in his own way.
''The first rule of successful politics is to be yourself,'' says Steve Merksamer, a senior adviser to the Dole campaign. ''I think Senator Dole recognized that. The second point is that Senator Dole has a compelling story to tell. Unlike most people in politics today, he's faced great adversity in life and has met it with success.''
Not that the Dole story has been a secret. Biographies have been written and his life scrutinized by reporters during his many runs for public office. Dole himself has spoken publicly over the years about the Armenian surgeon who operated on him seven times and wouldn't take a dime for his services. Ever since, Dole has been a loyal friend of the American-Armenian community.
But for someone of Dole's generation and demeanor, say his friends and observers, speaking about personal travails in public was a bit unseemly, just a bit too Oprah-like. The irony is that Dole has overcome his physical limitations so well - he lost the use of his right arm - that he now has to remind people of them.
During his 39-month hospitalization in Italy, he told a crowd recently, ''I couldn't feed myself, I couldn't dress myself, I couldn't walk.'' He conquered those challenges, but adds, ''I still use a buttonhook every day.''
In an earlier era, President Roosevelt wanted his disability hidden from the public. Press photographers obliged by not photographing him in his wheelchair.
Occupational hazards of working for Dole
Being a speechwriter for Bob Dole can be a frustrating occupation. Just ask Stan Wellborn, head speechwriter of Dole's 1988 presidential campaign and now public-affairs director of the Brookings Institution.
''We'd write speeches, and he wouldn't deliver them,'' says the affable Mr. Wellborn, a fellow Kansan. ''What he often did was he'd read them and toss the text aside, but he'd have assimilated the key points and that would come through when he spoke. It was better just to give him talking points.''
Dole is sometimes accused of having former President Bush's problem - a tendency to speak in sentence fragments. When asked last week to comment on his primary victories in the Dakotas, he responded: ''Feel good. Won two out of three.''
That's just the way Dole is, say his supporters.
''He'll never be the Great Communicator,'' Mr. Merksamer says. But, he offers, that could work to Dole's advantage in a head-to-head contest against President Clinton, who has the gift of gab. ''Being too facile with words can give someone an image of being too slick,'' says Merksamer, referring to Mr. Clinton.
Still, no one doubts Dole would find a tough match in Clinton when it comes to sheer campaigning skill and ability to articulate ''the vision thing.'' In part, Dole's problem stems from the very fact that he has spent so much time in the Senate, says Wayne Fields, a writer on presidential rhetoric and professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis.
''We elect our congressmen to represent our particular interests, not to take broad views,'' says Professor Fields. ''It's the opposite with the president, whom we elect to represent the union.''
That may in part explain why, says Fields, it has been almost impossible, through American history, for someone to move directly from a position of leadership in Congress to the presidency.