The resignation of Elizabeth Dole this week as U.S. secretary of labor is a distinct loss to the Cabinet. She is the highest ranking woman in the Bush administration but has been far more than a mere symbol. By all accounts, she has been an excellent and popular executive.

She is the first person to leave the Bush Cabinet since his election two years ago - a remarkably stable group so far. Her departure does not seem to signal any dissatisfaction in the ranks of the Bush administration. It may be that she is taking the first steps to prepare for elective office.Dole has been mentioned often as a possible candidate for senator or governor in her native North Carolina in 1992. That remains mere speculation since she has been silent about such possibilities.

When she leaves the Cabinet at the end of November, Dole will become national president of the American Red Cross, a challenging position - and one that could advance whatever future political ambitions she may have.

The Red Cross post is a highly visible one with a positive public image. The organization has a staff of 23,000, more than a million volunteers and a $1 billion annual budget.

Dole is no stranger to national office. She has held major government positions under six different presidents, including a stint as as secretary of transportation in President Ronald Reagan's Cabinet as well as being secretary of labor for Bush.

A former registered Democrat, Dole also has been associate director of legislative affairs for President Lyndon Johnson's consumer office, headed President Richard Nixon's consumer office and was a member of the Federal Trade Commission under Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter.

She is married to Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., the Senate minority leader, and a former presidential candidate. The Doles have been described as the perfect presidential ticket, although some observers wonder who would be the presidential and who would be the vice presidential candidate.

As secretary of labor, she is credited with developing a good relationship with labor union leaders in an administration that is not usually viewed with warmth and friendship by unions.

It is clear that the Red Cross is the winner and the Bush Cabinet the loser as she switches careers. But Washington probably has not heard the last of the energetic, clever and accomplished Elizabeth Dole.