GARDEN CITY, Kan. (AP) _ It hasn't been lost on Kansans like registered nurse Chris McKinney that Bob Dole has toned down his criticism of President Clinton when it comes to health care.

''I saw a couple of T-shirts that said, 'Dole, sit down and shut up 3/8''' McKinney said, reflecting on the senior senator from Kansas who, as minority leader, is also the titular head of the Republican Party.

''I've wondered these past couple of months if maybe he's getting the message - people want somebody who's going to be part of the solution, rather than just fanning the fire,'' she said.

Judging by the reaction in a Garden City high school auditorium, where McKinney and about 300 others gathered over the weekend for a health care ''summit,'' Dole is doing a fine minuet, balancing a ready-to-compromise stand on Clinton's health plan with his role as GOP guardian against high costs, big bureaucracy and government mandates on business.

''He's being flexible,'' said Wendy Klamp, marketing director at a psychiatric hospital in Shawnee, Kan., who was at a similar forum in Kansas City, Mo., on Friday when Dole shared the stage with Hillary Rodham Clinton.

''That's good,'' said Klamp, who theorizes that part of Dole's softer touch on the issue may be the influence of his wife, American Red Cross president Elizabeth Dole.

Klamp, like many of the other Kansans who attended these summits, thinks the health system needs reform. But Clinton's plan seems so far-reaching, they said, and they're worried about a huge new bureaucracy. Klamp's relying on Republicans like Dole to protect against too much government intrusion that would ruin what's good about the current system.

''I'm very much for finding a way to cover everyone, but I know how inefficient the government can be,'' said Bill Schaetzel, a patholigist from Lawrence, Kan., who was passing out, and trying to sell, bumper stickers that said, ''Health care expensive now? Just wait until they make it free 3/8''

''I'm a big Dole fan. He knows it's such a big issue out in the country, you can't come at it as just an adversary,'' Schaetzel said.

Dole, since taking over as spokesman, of sorts, for the Republican Party after George Bush lost the White House, has seemed to relish the role as chief adversary on Clinton's budget package and other initiatives.

But health care has been a different story. Dole is backing a GOP rival bill that Mrs. Clinton has called ''far superior'' to even an alternative offered by Democrats because the GOP plan tries to bring health coverage to everyone. Kansas' other Republican senator, Nancy Kassebaum, is a sponsor, too.

Even in rural Kansas - where Clinton-bashing might go over big - Dole kept his criticism of the president's package muted. Picked for the summit because it's rural, Garden City is a meat-packing town where folks like to note there's more cattle in the feedlots than people in the city.

The biggest applause of the day did not go to Dole, when he laid out why the Clinton plan might be too bureaucratic or costly or burdensome on business, but to the more conservative Rep. Pat Roberts, when he talked about the American Dream, climbing the ladder of success, and how health care should not be a ''basic right'' just handed out to everyone.

Dole spoke of individual responsibility, but it wasn't the fiery stuff Roberts used.

''We haven't touched on responsibility enough,'' Dole said. ''It's in the president's plan. It's last. It ought to be first.''

The idea was on the crowd's mind. Why should hard-working citizens have to pay for people who haven't taken care of themselves, or AIDS crises in other cities, came a question from the crowd.

Kassebaum responded there are behavior problems everywhere, such as smoking and drunken driving. And Americans are already paying for those costs, she said.

The Republican bill puts the mandate for health coverage on individuals, rather than on businesses, as Clinton's plan would do. This GOP alternative, whose lead author is Sen. John Chafee of Rhodes Island, would try to enforce it through the IRS. People would have to carry health insurance, just like many states require auto coverage. Poor people would get government vouchers to help them buy it.

But McKinney, the registered nurse, said she wondered if the politicians who will decide this issue really know what it's like for people scraping by.

''I drove up today and saw the men in their three-piece suits, and the women in their business suits, and I wondered, 'Do they see people in the emergency room with a $700 bill they can't pay? Have they ever seen a couple in tears, who had a sick baby and now have a $100,000 bill, and they're minimum-wage workers with no way to pay it?

''I'm tired of negativity out there ... I'd rather hear, 'Let's roll up our sleeves and get to work on it.''