In the beginning was the Hyundai, and the Hyundai was $48,000.

Out of the void came the 1988 presidential campaign's most celebrated television commercial, created by its most celebrated media consultants -- David Doak and Robert Shrum. Their candidate, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), suddenly emerged last January as the hope of ordinary working people and the tribune of economic nationalism. "It's your fight, too," he sloganized. It was an idea, everyone agreed, whose time had arrived.

In the end were Saturday's Michigan caucuses, in which Gephardt finished a distant third. Yesterday, he gave up his White House quest to file for reelection to his St. Louis congressional seat.

"Do I think we got very close to the nomination?" Shrum wistfully asks himself. "Yes."

"If there's anything I feel bad about," Doak says, "it's that we have been unable to convince people that Dick is the kind of guy he is."

With the resilience typical of the consulting business, Doak and Shrum live on to fight another day, having already begun fashioning ad campaigns for a few hot statewide contests. For them, Dick Gephardt's demise was a bad break.

But for others Gephardt's fall, seven weeks after his rise, is a cautionary tale about the limits of political advertising. His made-for-TV image was finally overwhelmed by another, broadcast with greater wattage: that of a consummate Washington insider who tailored his convictions to the demands of political expediency.

"I think Doak and Shrum recognized the alienation out there among middle-class voters, put his issues in the context of that alienation, and that's what powered his campaign," says David Axelrod, media consultant to Sen. Paul Simon's presidential campaign. "But the thing was a high-wire act from the beginning. It was only a matter of time before he was going to fall off. There was just too much to balance."

The screen hums with American workers forging Chrysler K-cars. Sparks fly. Union men toil. But their faces reveal hurt and confusion. "They work their hearts out every day," Gephardt narrates, his voice by turns earnest, defiant and righteous. Yet after the Korean government slaps on taxes and tariffs, he says, "a $10,000 Chrysler K-car costs $48,000 in Korea. It's not their fault we can't sell our cars in a market like that, and I'm tired" -- a note of anger there -- "of hearing American workers blamed for it."

Blue eyes blazing, he's the populist avenger come to blister the status quo. If we can't persuade the Koreans to remove their trade barriers, Gephardt tells the camera, we should break off negotiations. The Koreans will "know that we'll still honor our treaties to defend them, because that's the kind of country we are," he concludes. "But they'll also be left asking themselves how many Americans are going to pay $48,000 for one of their Hyundais."

It was a message of "white-hot flame," says the mercurial pollster Pat Caddell, who with Doak and Shrum founded the firm in late 1984, then withdrew after a much-publicized spat. And Doak, Shrum & Associates -- handling their first presidential campaign -- were hailed as video geniuses.

A dozen people work in the Georgetown offices, laboring over editing machines and holding conference calls. The walls are plastered with autographed photos from admirers in high places. "Bob -- If I could speak like you write," Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) has scrawled on his, "who knows what I could be?" Doak briefly advised Biden's ill-fated presidential campaign, and Biden once tried to mediate the tiff with Caddell.

It's a world of big money and bigger egos, where professional rivals are as quickly derided in private as praised in public. Doak is known as the cool-headed strategist. "He's able to keep from becoming so emotionally involved that he isn't able to function," says Chuck Robb, whose successful Virginia gubernatorial campaign Doak managed in 1981.

Shrum is reputed to be the ebullient poet, perhaps the premier speech writer of the Democratic Party. "Shrummy," says Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), the beneficiary of some of his best rhetoric, "is extremely sensitive and gentle, but he's also tough-minded." Indeed, when they think it'll do any good, they are quick to savage a client's opponents.

The two consultants share a physical bulk, from too many days and nights on the road, and a tendency to pace while expelling clouds of smoke. Doak favors cigarettes, Shrum soggy cigars. Both are lapsed lawyers -- Shrum Harvard Law, Doak the University of Missouri. "One of the greatest thrills for a Missouri graduate," says Doak, a former prosecutor and public defender, "is to get a Harvard grad in the courtroom and beat his ass." And both are apt to punctuate their pronouncements with the observation "I've got to go -- I'm really on the verge of missing this airplane!"

Beyond philosophical commitment -- the desire, as Shrum puts it, "to have an impact on the important decisions that really affect people's lives" -- each has his reasons for playing the game.

"You can do wonderful things in the editing room," Shrum says though a pungent haze. By his phone sit a bottle of Chloraseptic Sore Throat Spray and a volume of "Birnbaum's Italy." "The power of pictures is very great. You can say much more in much less time when you have the visual capacity."

"You can go through so much of life, do your job and never know the quantification of how you did," Doak says. "But there's a satisfaction to knowing whether you won or lost ... I like the highs and lows of it. You can be at the top of the world and at the bottom of the world in a matter of months."

And sometimes money is the least of it. Doak acknowledges that the Gephardt campaign still owes them something like $200,000. "I told Gephardt when we were in New Hampshire, 'Dick, I'll say this for you: You've restored my youthful enthusiasm for politics.' And he said, 'What do you mean?' And I said, 'You've reminded me what it's like to be a volunteer again.' "

Before they signed on with Gephardt last July, they had already achieved a measure of success. Working for Democrats in two dozen local and statewide races, they've won about 75 percent of the time. Among their satisfied customers are the governors of Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Virginia, the junior senator from Maryland, and the mayors of Denver, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

"I had the sense that they could be, if they weren't then, the tops in this business," says their first client, Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles, who hired them to make commercials and strategy for his 1985 election bid. "Perhaps one of the reasons we worked so well together is that I never viewed them as outside consultants. I viewed them as inside strategists, and friends."

"In 1992," says Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who won her seat in 1986, "they would have top priority for being chosen by me again."

The political landscape is littered with their victims.

"They clobbered us," recalls Ronald Smith, chief strategist to then-congressman Ed Zschau, a Republican who lost his 1986 California Senate race to the incumbent Democrat, Alan Cranston.

In that contest, Doak and Shrum designed a strategy that has served them well since. With the polls showing the aging incumbent vulnerable to the handsome young congressman, they hit Zschau with attack ads as soon as he won the Republican primary. One of the most talked-about spots of the 1986 election cycle was their sendup of a TV promotional offer in which "Jackman Wolf" hawks the "great flip-flops" of "that great song and dance man Ed Zschau." The hits included "How Many Times Can a Man Change His Mind," "Caught in a Dump" (about taking money from industrial polluters) and "I'd Send the Buck$ to the Contras," all crooned by an Elvis imitator.

"They usually try to establish the negatives on their opponent with early media," says Republican media consultant Stuart Spencer, another Zschau adviser. "They find one or two issues and trash him to death."

Not that every Doak and Shrum race has been a tactical triumph. Also working in 1986 for then-lieutenant governor of Kentucky Steve Beshear, who was polling a close second to former governor John Y. Brown in the gubernatorial primary race, they mounted a similarly aggressive negative media campaign. The result was that their candidate was brought down along with Brown, and a dark-horse challenger, Wallace Wilkinson, went on to become governor.

"I wish they'd gotten me one of those $48,000 cars," Beshear says ruefully.

Doak and Shrum both came by their politics as children of the working class. Doak, 41, is the son of a Missouri sheep rancher, and Shrum, 45, the son of a California tool-and-die maker. It seems only natural that they distilled for Gephardt, whose father drove a milk truck, a kind of fanfare for the common man.

Doak, a self-styled "country populist" with a past of working for Jimmy Carter -- whose 1976 presidential campaign Shrum aided briefly before fleeing in disgust -- seemed a particularly snug fit with Gephardt.

But in Shrum's case the alliance was surprising, given his history of bedrock liberalism in the service of Kennedy and former senator George McGovern (D-S.D.), and Gephardt's occasionally conservative stands on such issues as abortion and the minimum wage.

"It puzzles me," says McGovern, a friend since 1972, when Shrum wrote speeches for his presidential campaign. "It just seemed to me that those two guys were not made for each other."

Shrum disagrees. "I'm very comfortable with Dick," he says, launching into one of his trademark perorations. " 'Conservative/liberal' labels don't matter much. Our politics has become so freighted with nomenclature now, and the nomenclature often confuses rather than clarifies what people think or what they believe in. I could make the case to George, without any trouble, that the tax reform he was talking about in the '72 campaign was finally enacted into law as the Bradley-Gephardt Bill of 1986."

Yet Shrum was chary of even meeting Gephardt when the candidate first sought him out in 1986. Finally they had dinner at Gephardt's home in Great Falls. Shrum had come prepared to argue about Gephardt's trade amendment, which he thought smacked of protectionism.

"Suddenly I realized that all I was doing was repeating the things I had read on the editorial page of The Washington Post," he recalls. "I didn't really know what I was talking about, and he knew a helluva lot more about what he was talking about ... I thought he was terrific, I thought he was smart." Shrum quietly began working on Gephardt's February 1987 announcement speech.

"I took him from being a far-left liberal," the candidate wryly recalls, "to being a Bruce Springsteen moderate Democrat."

Gephardt and his consultants began honing his message last fall, using themes he'd been talking about on the stump. "I was really frustrated," Gephardt recalls. "I'd been talking about the trade message for more than a year, and first of all, people didn't seem to have any information about it. Second, I was describing my bill, and nobody really cared about the bill."

Doak came up with the slogan "It's your fight, too," which Gephardt promptly began using in his Iowa speeches, to enthusiastic crowds. Shrum pressed him for examples of unfair foreign trade practices. Gephardt told him about trying to get an American-style meal on a trip to Japan. Sitting in a Tokyo restaurant with his wife Jane, they opened their menus, looked at the price for a steak dinner ($90 a person), shut their menus and left. He mentioned $5 apples. He mentioned the $48,000 Hyundai. Shrum, Gephardt recalls, "jumped at it."

The consultants leap out of their chairs to pace as they relive the triumph of their most daring gambit -- waiting to air Gephardt's commercials until the day after Christmas in Iowa, a period when people supposedly don't watch. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and Simon had started theirs a month earlier, and Gephardt was sagging badly in the polls.

"That was the toughest strategic decision of the campaign," Doak recalls.

As it turned out, they were right, and Gephardt enjoyed nine days alone on the air, letting him reach the Iowa electorate virtually unobstructed.

"Now everybody will do it," Shrum predicts. "Nobody will ever again get a clear shot at the week after Christmas in Iowa."

Gephardt was borne aloft by the Hyundai and other ads portraying him as the champion of farmers and workers, the enemy of corporate greed and vested interests. He blitzed to victory in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 8, scored a respectable second a week later in New Hampshire, and won on Feb. 23 in South Dakota.

By the rules of campaigns past, Iowa should have given him momentum and a windfall of cash. But not in this strangest of presidential years. Barely five weeks after his Iowa triumph, in the 20-state megaprimary known as "Super Tuesday," Gephardt's candidacy was buried.

His ideas were catching on as the campaign moved South, but Gephardt himself caught a barrage of journalistic suspicion about his highly touted populist convictions -- and a storm of attack ads from his Democratic rivals. Dick Gephardt, the voters were told in the ads of Dukakis and Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, had "flip-flopped" on issues ranging from "Reaganomics" to Social Security, and he battered the corporate monolith while taking its money.

Gephardt's attackers were outspending his million-dollar TV budget by 5 to 1. Doak and Shrum rushed a 10-second spot accusing Dukakis of "dirty tricks" onto the airwaves the weekend before Super Tuesday. In Florida, where Gephardt was banking on Rep. Claude Pepper's endorsement to pull him through, the ad was run back to back with a Pepper testimonial, prompting the popular 87-year-old congressman to publicly disavow it and privately apologize to Dukakis campaign manager Susan Estrich.

"I told the Gephardt people to stop it right away," Pepper says, "or at least get it away from my ad."

The campaign did neither. Attack ads are often effective. Doak and Shrum had proved as much two weeks earlier in South Dakota, where their commercial lampooning Dukakis' farm policies helped Gephardt to victory -- his last.

"Gephardt got four times the negative news coverage of any other candidate," Doak says. "Frankly, I didn't anticipate that."

"Instead of a bounce," Shrum says, "we got a fist."

Did Doak and Shrum blow it? Did the message kill the messenger? Or was the cash-strained populist mauled by an "elitist" press corps, as syndicated columnist Mark Shields has argued, and outgunned by a Super Tuesday ad offensive?

"It was a contest between message and money, and money won," Shrum says. "They were spending more against us on negative media than we were spending on all our media."

"Live by the sword, die by the sword," says Caddell with the benefit of hindsight. "If I were them, I wouldn't have responded ... If your message is as hot as that, you don't walk away from it ... You have to think strategically, not tactically. That's why consultants who do well on the state level often do miserably on the presidential level. In this business you're not allowed to win one day and then worry about the next. That's how you lose in this business."

"We lost, no question about that," Gephardt said yesterday as he dropped out of the race. "I believe that our effort was not in vain -- that we challenged the Democratic Party and called it back to its central role as an agent of fundamental change ... That was our message and that was our victory."

As Gephardt spoke to reporters in the Cannon Caucus room, Doak stood off to the side. Shrum found a seat in the back. The day before, there had been a final meeting at Gephardt's house and the taking of valedictory snapshots.

"I'm not clinical about this stuff," Shrum says. "I never have been and never will be. I hope I'm smart, and I think I'm rational, but I'm not clinical."

Doak isn't clinical -- just philosophical. "There's a lot of guys that file for this job, and not many of them get there," he says of the presidency.

Shrum, for one, seems reluctant to give up the ghost. "You can't ever give up in these things," he says. "For me it's a business. But for these people, it's their lives."