It was a fine fall day, just a week before the one that counts, and Mark Shields was in the front room of Duke Zeibert's, shown to his table by Duke himself, and there was his good friend John Reily ready to tell a few tales and trade information with some of the other stock brokers who deal in political futures.

The bluefish was excellent, the club soda would taste better if its usual accompaniment had not been banished months ago, and the restaurant was at floodtide, coursing with the news of a hundred races in a hundred different places.

Shields looked around the room filled with the keen-eyed gentlemen who sat hunched forward at their tables, ears pricked, like hunters in a duck blind at dawn. "lots of laborskates here today," he said, "I wonder what's up."

Shields and Reily greeted the others who shared in their communion. Bill Dodds was there that day, the UAW's political action director, and Mike DiSalle, the former governor of Ohio, came by. And the nthere was Frank M.Hoffman, known to the table as Nordy, the former legislative director of the Steelworkers Union, a big barrel of a man who played on Knute Rockne's last team and now watches a different kind of game from the sidelines as the Senate's sergeant-at-arms.

"Down 16 points," Hoffman said, by way of greeting, this reference to a certain senator's standing in the lastest poll. "Griffin looks alright - to get beat I mean. Baker's only three points ahead. You heard anything?"

"Hathaway," Reilly said, "That's my up-set."

"Looks like King's finally stopped the bleeding," Shields said.

"Who's the guy running for attorney general in Iowa?" Ed Kane commissioner of the Deleware Port Authority, wanted to know.

The conversation continued, prophecies and Predilections, and talk of the past. The work is over now, all over "but the hand-holding," Shields said. It's up to the harried campaign managers to get out the vote and the volunteers, but there's still plenty of time for speculation and last minute strategizing and indulgence in the passion that flares most brightly now, in this the time when political fortunes turn with the autumn leaves.

"It's a Christmas-tree business," said Shields. "And this is my Christmas season."

Mark Shields is what's known in the businessas a general political consultant. Unlike others in the trade, he is not called in to run specific aspects of the campaign, such as the phone banks, mailings lists or fund-raising, but instead he paints the broad brush strokes on a campaign's canvas - etching the issues, the ones to emphasize and the ways to present them, fleshing out the candidate's image and credentials, providing advice on how to structure a campaign's organization and heirarchy.

The advice he gives, for $750 a day, is grounded in the volumes of information about the race and the political terrain on which it is to be run that is gleaned from an exhaustive poll, commissioned separately, interviews with aides and experts, and clippings and research files. From the research comes a campaign plan, dozens of pages long, that sketches the candidate's strong and weak points and will provide suggestions on everything from themes and possible slogans, what type of audience brings out the best in the candidate, the amount of rest needs before the editorial conference that might get him the support from a major newspaper, the psychic income of bumpersticker (negligible) to their color (blue).

"I think a political consultant can make or break a campaign," said John Rubin, campaign manager for Greenville, S.C., Mayor Max Heller who is running for Congress this year with Shield's help. "When you start something like this you just have to put your ego on the shelf for awhile and realize you need help. I'm 25 years old. Running a campaign is like being a 12-year-old who suddenly finds himself playing in Yankee Stadium. It would be foolish to think you can do it all by yourself."

Right after election day, Shields will be down in Louisiana, working with a gubernatorial candidate, and in the past he has worked as a field coordinator for Robert Kennedy, managed two of former Ohio gov. John Gilligan's campaigns, and worked in various capacities for Morris Udall, Ed Muskie, Sargent Shriver, Kevin White and dozens of others.

Shields is also one of the best political wits in town, a good quote for regions of political journalists and a ready source of advice, information and energy. This year he is also working as a consultant for NBC on their political coverage. At times he has lectured on and written about the subject of politics and always he has lived, breathed and loved it, as it is practiced by the Democratic Party.

His friend Reilly is a practicing attorney now. But he's been in and out of campaigns right along as well, both men having wrapped themselves in this affliction decades ago. Shields remembered the first time he ever saw his Boston Irish Catholic mother cry was the night that Stevenson was defeated.

Shields himself first got involved in politics at the age of 6, collecting names on a nominating petition for a candidate for local office in his home town of South Weymouth, Mass. His father, a paper salesman, was the first Catholic elected to the school board, and five newspapers and political discussions were as much a part of the family diet as their daily bread.

Shields graduated from Notre Dame in 1956 and the Marine Corps in 1961 and, after a diversion in Hollywood getting studio audiences for TV shows, came to Washington in 1965 as legislative director for William Proxmire. Political campaigns and the principles and pragmatism behind them have been his living ever since.

"The chance to do that which you feel morally obliged to do, that which you enjoy doing and do well, how many times in life do you get a chance like that? It's a marvelous, marvelous thing. A campaign is unlike anything else in people's lives. It's pressured, it's chaotic, it's complex, and always," said Shields, "always you know whether you won or you lost."

Shields and Reilly measured out the afternoon in coffecups, talking with Gatling gun speed and the grace of Irishmen and not for a moment did they forget other precious elements in their preoccupation.

"I was talking to frank Sargent the other day," said Shields. "He was Michael Dukaki's predecessor as governor of Massachusetts and a very good friend of mine. I was talking to him and he said,'You know what I miss, Mark? I miss the stories, I miss the laughs, I miss the fun.'"

Shields and Reilly had another cup of coffee and then the word "remember" sounded like a beckoning bell in the conversation, and the stories began.

"Tell the one about the kazoos," said Reilly. "You should have seen it," said Shields, "There we were with Shriver in Oklahoma, we're playing 'Hail to the Chief' on kazoos, I think the Secret Service decided it was all over for democracy, bring on the junta . . . Remember the duck we had in the bathtub? . . . Those things don't happen when you're working for John Hancock selling life insurance . . . Remember the candidate who set fire to his hair with the blowtorch dedicating the sheet metal factory? There we were, trying to stamp out his hair . . ."

Silence for a moment, a moment's defence to the uncertainty of it all . . . to children born without benefit of health insurance and steady incomes, to the long lease taken out on hope and faith in "the grace of God and a good infield," as Shields put it.

"We were sitting in a bar one day after the '72 election," said Shields. "And Reilly turns to me and says, 'How old are you, Mark?' I'm 35, John," I said. "When I was 35, Mark," he said, "I was a federl trade commissioner." "When you were 35, John," I said, 'you had Jack Kennedy instead of George McGovern.'

In this last week, the sound of the phone ringing had filed up Mark Shields' small office on Connecticut Avenue as if all nine choirs of angels had called to inquire about judgement Day. Which, in a way, they had.

". . . Oh, he's down according to the last poll, but Baron is hedging . . . he told me he had 300 bucks left after getting out that sample ballots . . . That school thing in Cleveland is so tough . . . Are you going to be around this afternoon? Because I want to talk to you about some of those Senate races."

Shields' three congressional propects this year span the continent - Les AuCoin, an incumbent from Oregon, and first time hopefuls Phil Snowden in Missouri, and Max Heller in South Carolina.

"My most interesting is this guy in South Carolina," Shields said. "Are you ready for this? My wife's eyes glaze over by now when I tell it," and he told the story of Heller, who came to Greenville from Vienna, a Jewish refugee from the Nazis, "a buck sixty in his pocket, get a job sweeping floors in a factory, 10 years later, he's running the place." And now, "He's running for congress, a Jewish immigrant in the buckle of the Bible Belt - so it's a fun campaign to do, it's the American dream, it'd be a triumph, I think, of decency and decent instincts."

The phone again. That time it was DennyShaul, a former mayoral candidate in Akron. "Hello, Denny, so good to hear your voice . . . (Mondale's executive assistant) Jim Johnson was on the line, he wants to know if there's any particular theme of chord that should be struck . . . Honest to God, is that right? Was there a commontheme running through those endorsements? . . . Is there anything else that can help him, maybe a frontal attack . . . It's an awful place, it really is, it reminds me o* f what they say about Columbus, the only place in the world where advertised on television was a piano and if you bought one that week, and that week only, they'd throw in a shotgun . . ."

There have been a few last-minute crises. AuCoin's opponent lifted a line from one of his radio spots and used it in a way that made the congressman sound as if he decisively opposed all tax cuts. Snowden wanted to know what his reply should be to a newspaper poll that showed him trailing his opponent - Shields told him to talk about how "we in Missouri learned how to treat polls from Harry Truman" Heller was treated to some last-minute advice before his final debate with his opponent. But at this point there was little left to be done.

The ego investment in these campaign "is considerable, I really want these three to win. It means a lot to me. This is my first time doing media, it's my Lana Turner experience."

And he was off and running about the problems of cinema verite, the style used for the political spots he produced for his candidates with Meredith Burch, a long-time associate of political filmmaker Charles Guggenheim. "Of course you want it to be as authentic as possible, but you prefer not to have him on when he's drooling, if you have your choices, you prefer a zipped fly and no drooling . . ."

But the question of how winners and losers affect his own reputation as a consultant is more complex. "Obviously," Reilly said, "if you don't have anything in five years, you're going to be in trouble, but most people in the business are sophisticated enough to understand all the factors in gauging how well a guy did."

Last spring, for instance, Shields worked for a former Texas State senator by the name of Joe Christie who was running for the Democratic nomination to the Seante seat. Christie lost the election, but he got 45 percent of the vote despite a liberal anti-big-oil ideology and practically no money. "I think the world of Mark," Christies said recently. "The job he did was tremendous. But politics is a rich man's game."

But beyond their effect on his standing in the business, the races lost after a hard-fought campaign inevitably touch the consultant with some of the same shadows that darken the candidate. "You have to figure that if you're a liberal Democrat and Red Sox fan, life is bound to break your heart," Shields said, and there were some that were painful - Fulbright's last Senate race Udall's campaign for the presidency, Gilligan's defeat, although it was not a ace he had been involved in.

"It's going to hurd," Shields said. "You steel yourself against that." And dissipate the doubt in humor, and the tales to be told. Shield is not the type for depression and self-indulgence, but, said Reilly, "you sometimes find Mark at the point more available for long lunches and dinners with his friends. "You think about theones you did win," Shields said."And you remember the stories."

And these are stories that have not been kept in a careless custody, but stories that have been burnished and polished until they gleam with all the irony and idealism that gave them life in the first place.

There were still more fables to stretch out conversation and fabulous characters to go with them: Sleazy Moneymen - "you should have seen this guy, you wouldn't believe it, he had polyester everything, he had live alligators on his feet" - and Demon Egos, that make the candidates run, and sometimes make them lose - "We sat with this one senator and we just couldn't convince him that going to all the corn roasts as he did in the past wasn't going to win him the election."

Of course he lost," Reilly said. "Why do you think you get to hear this story?"

There was time for one more, and so they told the one about the '73 mayor's race in Cleveland and how the City Council president was looking for support for the Democratic nominee from a Democratic councilman who was supporting the Republican candidate because of his "non-black identification."

"He tried to appeal to him on every level," Shields said. "he tried their ethnic ties, the old neigborhood, he tried party loyalty, sacrifice, idealism, pragmatism, and finally he tried shaming him into it. 'Joe,' he said, 'you know what you are? You're a gutless, spineless, son-of-a-bitch.' And the guy said, 'You know, Tony, that's always been my problem."

Shields laughed and Reilly laughed. "That's what I love about this business," Shields said. "Everybody's faults and virtues are writ so large."