Campaigning in New Hampshire, Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) sometimes jokes about his first try for the presidency in 1980, when his candidacy sputtered and quickly crashed after he received a total of 597 votes in the New Hampshire primary.

"We had a secret plan" to win, Dole says, "which we announced after the election." He goes on to say that that was then and this is now and "a lot of things have happened in the last eight years."

Four weeks before Dole again faces New Hampshire primary voters -- and three weeks before an even more critical test in the Iowa caucuses -- major questions remain about how much has really changed since 1980. Disorganization was one of the hallmarks of Dole's first presidential campaign, and it has followed him into his second.

The campaign organization of his chief opponent, Vice President Bush, meanwhile, was in place early, contains far more political professionals experienced in the strategies and crises of a presidential campaign, and is broadly in place around the nation. While almost no political professional would argue that good organization is more important than the candidate, many argue that lack of organization can be a decisive factor between two strong candidates like Bush and Dole.

After almost a year of drift and indecision, the Dole organization now is scrambling to make up for lost time. A new campaign chairman, William E. Brock III, was named in November, and he began reorganizing the operation and bringing in new help. But Brock's original part-time status, and the turmoil produced by changing personnel in mid-campaign, has created a new set of problems. As a result, according to Republican political operatives, Dole has left himself little margin for error to recover from unexpected setbacks in his quest to overtake Bush.

Dole's organizational problems reflect his traditional operating style, both during his abortive 1980 presidential campaign and his long career in Congress.

Over the years, Dole has earned a reputation as a kind of political one-man band, a politician whose considerable personal talents and temperament have made him reluctant to delegate authority to others. Dole loyalists such as Dale Tate, one of his Senate press secretaries who has temporarily joined the campaign staff, say he is now much better on this score.

This has raised the stakes even higher for Dole in Iowa, where it is widely agreed he must finish ahead of Bush to keep his second campaign alive.

At Dole's national campaign headquarters on L Street, Brock, a former senator from Tennessee and labor secretary in the Reagan administration, has brought in several new senior aides and shifted roles of others. Both the Brock appointees and the holdovers acknowledge that the transition came late in the political cycle and was not always smooth, but they also insist that they are putting in place the kind of organization that can challenge Bush.

"I'm just now beginning to feel I have command of this ship," said Norman (Skip) Watts, a senior deputy in then-President Gerald R. Ford's 1976 campaign and the new political director of the Dole campaign. "I feel we have done six months' work in six weeks."

Others say they detect some but not nearly enough improvement in the Dole organizational effort.

Eddie Mahe Jr., a veteran GOP political consultant who is not working for any of the presidential hopefuls, said he sees some improvement. "I'd be shocked if there had not been some improvement, but one clearly has the sense that they still have a long way to go," he added. "You talk to people in some of these states about the Dole organization and you get a chuckle."

"If it's gotten any better, it is only marginally better," said another Republican consultant who is not associated with any of the presidential campaigns. "This is a sad, sorry campaign at the moment. It's a tribute to how strong Dole is, how much stature he enjoys, that it is still holding together."

In 1987, with the top operations of most of his challengers essentially in place, Dole allowed most of the year to slip by without a permanent campaign director, and without state operations in many key states whose primaries and caucuses occur after the Iowa and New Hampshire contests next month. That decision increases Dole's vulnerability to early elimination if Bush wins the first contests, because his organization is considered as strong in the next big test, the "Super Tuesday" Southern contests on March 8, as it is in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Early last year, Dole discussed the job with Republican operative John P. Sears, who played key roles in the 1976 and 1980 GOP campaign, but the strong-willed Sears reportedly insisted on having more control than Dole was willing to give up, and he never came aboard.

Meanwhile, Dole named a longtime friend, Robert F. Ellsworth, a former deputy defense secretary and U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as chairman of his exploratory presidential campaign committee. Through much of last year, the Dole effort was directed by Ellsworth, David A. Keene, a political consultant and chairman of the American Conservative Union, and Donald J. Devine, a former head of the Office of Personnel Management.

According to Keene, who opposed hiring Sears and had a public spat with Ellsworth, Ellsworth always considered himself an "interim" campaign chairman. Ellsworth, he said, "was the perfect guy for chairman of the exploratory committee."

But as the months rolled by, key decisions needed to be made and Ellsworth was reluctant to saddle his successor with his judgments and commitments, according to Keene.

Republicans who know Dole say the sit- uation is consistent with his entire career. "Ultimately, the blame goes back to Dole," said a Republican consultant. "Dole's idea of a campaign organization is to have 10 or 12 guys he can call up or who call him."

"If your inclination is to do everything yourself, you're unwilling to release it to someone else," said another veteran GOP operative.

The result of this slow start left Dole far behind Bush even in key, early states. In New Hampshire, said Paul E. Jacobson, a Dole campaign aide there, "as late as April or May we had one desk, one person and 62 names in a box. Bob Dole had made dozens of visits to New Hampshire and all he had was 62 names . . . . We've been behind the curve and still are."

In Texas, site of the largest of the March 8 Super Tuesday contests, the Dole campaign has been embarrassed by the discovery of forged signatures on petitions to get Dole's name on the ballot. And the recent controversy over Dole family finances, while not a political organization problem, illustrates Dole's tendency to maintain tight control through a small circle of close friends.

David Owen, the campaign finance chairman who resigned in the wake of the controversy, is a longtime friend of Dole's from Kansas, as is Ellsworth.

Even after Brock came to the campaign in early November, there was an apparent lack of urgency, despite the fact that Dole was about to take on a Bush campaign organization that has been designed from the start to have the resources and skill to survive setbacks in the early caucus and primary states.

Brock initially committed to serve only two or three days a week with the campaign, and had previous commitments for a private business trip to Japan and a Christmas vacation with his family that have taken him away from the operation during a critical period.

"Bill Brock didn't know what he was getting into," said one of his friends and admirers.

Brock is now working virtually fulltime on the Dole campaign, according to aides. Bernard Windon, a Brock protege from his days with the national Young Republicans organization, is serving as the campaign's deputy chairman in charge of day-to-day operations.

Brock, who is widely admired in GOP circles, once ran the Republican National Committee but has never been in charge of a presidential campaign.

Windon, who has been associated in business and politics with former defense secretary Donald S. Rumsfeld, an early dropout in the GOP contest, also has limited presidential campaign experience.

The campaign they took over was and remains best organized where it is most vital, in Iowa, where Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) has put his own extensive grass-roots organization to work for Dole.

But whether Brock, Windon and other members of the revamped Dole campaign can deliver on Dole's current strong lead in Iowa -- and capitalize on a Dole victory in New Hampshire and beyond in extended trench warfare with the Bush organization -- remains a major question.

Asked if the fall transition under Brock may have come too late, Watts, the campaign's political director, said, "Well, we won't know that for a while. It came late and it would have been better if it came sooner."