FOR A TIME, there was reason to hope we might be

escaping the "cult of consultant personality." No one, as I recall, seriously suggested that Ronald Reagan had defeated Jimmy Carter because Dick Wirthlin's polling was better than Pat Caddell's, or because Peter Dailey's TV spots were slicker than Jerry Rafshoon's.

As Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover pointed out in their book on the 1980 campaign, Blue Smoke and Mirrors, it was the overriding realities--inflation, recession, Iran, Afghanistan--that shaped the outcome of the presidential election far beyond the capacity of any consultant, however brilliant, to manipulate.

But here we are, a year later, and already the 1980 presidential contest begins to look like a happy exception to the rule of campaign contrivance. So far as a spectator can tell, the recent Virginia gubernatorial election was at least as much a battle between the rival media meisters, Doug Bailey and Bob Squier, as it was between their clients and employers, Marshall Coleman and Chuck Robb. The introduction of a new commerical drew more coverage in that race than did any of the policy statements the candidates were making.

Assuming, then, that we have not purged this confusion between the puppets and the puppetmasters from our minds, there are two new books that seek to satisy our curiosity about the people pulling the strings.

Not to beat around the bush, if you want to understand what is happening in the world of campaign consultants, spend the extra $6 and buy Sabato's The Rise of Political Consultants..

David Chagall, who is identified by his publisher as a California-based investigative reporter and novelist, makes rather a hash of the subject in The New Kingmakers.

The bulk of his book is a retelling of the 1968, 1976 and 1980 campaigns, largely from the perspectives of some of the campaign consultants involved. Chagall does not seem to have had access to all of them, so he bulks out the account with reams of irrelevant detail culled from newspaper files.

And for an investigative reporter, he accepts uncritically some rather sweeping generalizations, evidently given him by the consultants with whom he talked.

He breaks away from the presidential compaigns to spend a couple chapters on a Los Angeles consultant named Hal Evry, who goes out of his way to dramatize his contempt for his clients and other politicians, for the political parties and the press. Chagall quotes him as saying, "I've never voted in my life. And I never intend to vote. It doesn't make any difference who gets elected."

Chagall also gives "special thanks to Hal Evry for opening my eyes to the consultant phenomenon." Which may explain some--if not all--the shortcomings of this book.

Sabato's study is much more reliable in its facts and judicious in its interpretations. The University of Virginia political scientist has written a clearly organized book, detailed and documented enough to satisy the scholars, but compact enough to be accessible to any political buff.

He starts with an overview of the profession and its history, examining the varieties of relationships of consultants to campaigns. He then proceeds to consider the economics of the industry and its major effects on campaigns.

Three succeeding chapters offer more detailed studies of the work of pollsters, television and advertising specialists, and direct-mail distributors.

The final two chapters address the policy questions arising for the press, the political parties, and the entire political process from the emergence and increasing influence of these consultants.

Sabato tends to view them askance--as entrepreneurs with relatively little concern (as a group) for the integrity of the campaign as a forum for settling the choice of leadership, the direction of policy, and the mandating of government.

His attack on the ethics of the profession is a strong one --at least, it seems so in the wake of the kind of negative, mud-slinging campaign we have just witnessed in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections.

He takes the press to task for what strikes him as easy acquiescence in the consultant's game, charging--with some accuracy--that reporters find consultants such useful sources that they are less than eager to raise serious questions about the influence the consultants exert.

Sabato is not naive, so he does not pretend that all campaigns would be conducted as Socratic dialogues if only those wicked consultants were banished to the sidelines. His serious point is that, to the extent elections are reduced to exercises in manipulation by people oriented only to winning a particular contest, those elections will more and more repel the people they are supposed to serve--the voters.

There is evidence that exactly that has happened. He believes--as I do--that the first step in remedying the situation is for the political parties, whose interest, by definition, extends beyond the outcome of any particular race, to regain their primacy in the conduct of campaigns.

That means, he points out, bringing more of the consultant services "in-house," as the Republican congressional, senatorial and national committees have begun to do in recent years. The Republicans are also able, he points out, to provide consultant services a lot less expensively than the individual entrepreneurs can do--thus serving the interests of both candidates and contributors.

"The political consultant," Sabato says, "rarely sees his responsibilities as extending beyond those he has to his client. And yet the political professional, as a vital and powerful actor in democracy's greatest dramas, undeniably has broader responsibilites--to the public at large, to the political process, and to the electoral system. Closer association with the political parties, whether voluntary or forced, may help to harness consultant's considerable talents for a higher and more constructive purpose than the election of individual candidates."

Politics will be healthier when that happens.