JACKSONVILLE, FLA., FEB. 25 -- A bitter internal dispute in the presidential campaign of Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) burst into the open today after campaign Chairman William E. Brock abruptly fired two senior political consultants and ordered them off the campaign plane.
The consultants, David A. Keene and Donald J. Devine, were fired by Brock at an Orlando restaurant this morning and were ordered off the Dole campaign plane when it reached here a few hours later.
The two immediately summoned reporters to an airline terminal where they blasted Brock. Keene described Brock as "petty" and said his dramatic action was meant "not just to get rid of us but to humiliate us." Devine accused Brock of "a power play" designed to show "that he's in charge."
Both men, known as no-holds-barred political infighters, defended Dole, whom they said had "no choice" but to accede to Brock's demand that they be fired. And both said they continue to support his candidacy. But the episode, the most vivid example of the continuing chaos and turmoil of the Dole campaign, raised anew questions about Dole's ability to put together a coherent national organization or a White House operation if elected.
Keene quoted Dole as telling him as he left the plane this morning, "I'll see you back in Washington. I guess that's how it has to be. I need your help."
At a news conference, Dole said he was not aware of the details of the firings of his two longtime political associates. "I wasn't part of the conversation," he said.
Dole described Keene and Devine as "still friends of mine." Asked what the episode says about his candidacy, he replied, "I don't think it says a great deal."
Brock, a former senator from Tennessee and secretary of labor in the Reagan administration, would not discuss details of his action. Informed of Keene's comments, he said: "I didn't do anything to humiliate anyone. I do intend to run this campaign. I expect it to be coherent and constructive and nondivisive."
Brock, who said there will be other personnel changes, added, "I wish I could keep the focus on the issues, but that's hard to do when people hold their own press conferences. I don't see how that serves the candidate they profess to support."
The firing incident climaxed a tumultuous week for Dole that included the low point of his campaign following his loss to Vice President Bush in the Feb. 8 New Hampshire primary and the revival of his spirits with his victories Tuesday in South Dakota and Minnesota. It also marked the latest chapter in a battle between Brock, who was named campaign chairman in November and brought in his own team of political operatives, and holdover aides such as Keene and Devine, who were with Dole earlier.
Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, and Devine, a former head of the Office of Personnel Management, have strong ties to the most conservative wing of the Republican Party. Both joined the traveling campaign entourage, at Dole's personal request, last Saturday after several days in which the gloomy candidate traveled without the company of a single senior political adviser and frequently displayed his anger over the New Hampshire results.
Keene said Brock's action was apparently triggered by a report Tuesday on the Cable News Network by conservative columnist Robert Novak, who described an enlarged role for Keene and Devine and said they had "taken over the plane." Keene said he was called that night in Minneapolis by Brock, who he said told him: "I like the results in South Dakota and Minnesota and nothing else. You've done this, and I'm going to fix you."
Keene said the Novak report "was an excuse. . . a precipitating event he could use to get rid of us."
Brock joined the traveling party Wednesday night in Charlotte, N.C., and, according to Keene, refused to speak to him or Devine. But this morning, while Dole addressed a business group at Ronnie's Restaurant in Orlando, Fla., Keene said Brock privately told him, "I'm pulling the string. You're finished."
He said Devine then joined them at a table in the restaurant and was told by Brock, "I might as well deal with both of you. This is not going to work. You are off the payroll as of today. You're off the plane in Jacksonville."
Keene said, "This was pettiness because the Brock people have spent a great deal of time humiliating, downgrading and ignoring anybody who was there before them." He added that neither his luggage nor Devine's was placed on the campaign plane before it left Orlando this morning.
"I don't want to say that Brock is petty, but he is," Keene said.
The episode jolted the Dole campaign less than two weeks before the critical March 8 "Super Tuesday" contests. But despite the clear evidence of continuing turmoil, Keene and Devine insisted that it should not reflect on Dole.
"I think the candidate had no choice," Keene said. "What was he supposed to do, fire his chairman?"
Both men, however, assailed the national campaign organization constructed by Brock. "It's the headquarters," Devine said, lauding the Dole political organizations in individual states but questioning the national operation. Another Dole aide who is a backer of Brock agreed, in effect, with the two fired aides about the state organizations. "What you've got are state organizations doing their job. . . . They are going to keep running whether this other goes on or not," he said.
Keene said Dole's national campaign organization "has little understanding of the strategy needed to win and no understanding of the needs of a presidential candidate." He said he was shocked to learn that, through January, the Dole campaign had spent more than the better-financed Bush operation.
"They've built an empire," he said of Brock and his associates.
While today's firings were dramatic, they were not the only sign of the problems that have plagued Dole this year. At times this week, Dole has seemed to wander the country almost aimlessly as his schedule is revised day by day.
This morning, immediately following the firings, Dole attended an event that epitomized his troubles. He was driven to a vast, open field in Orlando where Universal Studios is constructing a movie-production facility. As a cold wind whipped across the barren landscape and bulldozers rumbled nearby, the Senate minority leader was photographed there with four people dressed as movie characters -- Woody Woodpecker, Mae West, Charlie Chaplin and Frankenstein's monster.
The strangeness of the scene was not lost on Dole, who later asked reporters, "What did you think of the tour of the vacant lot?"
Devine said the Woody Woodpecker event was "a good example of Chairman Brock's leadership."