The first big fight of the 1986 Florida Senate campaign came between consultants, not candidates. It was a revealing commentary.

Consultants are the new bosses of American politics, the stage managers of democracy. They travel from state to state, and sometimes from party to party, helping elect candidates and reshaping the political landscape.

The Florida Senate race pits some of the biggest names in the political consulting business against one another. It is in some ways as much a test of their skills and talents as of the candidates'. The stakes are high.

Sen. Paula Hawkins, a first-term Republican, and challenger Gov. Robert Graham, a second-term Democrat, are expected to spend a total of more than $11 million in their campaigns. This means a handful of political image-makers, pollsters and strategists will share about $2 million in fees.

With the election a year away, the Hawkins team made the first move, preparing a wave of television ads. The commercials were the joint product of media adviser Robert Goodman, one of nation's zaniest and best known political admen, and pollster Richard Morris.

The two men view politics differently. "Morris deals with facts; I deal with emotion," Goodman said. "I am into feelings. I am for something that is moving, that has drama and is cinematographic. We his firm like real-life drama, to touch people where they live. I think love is the most powerful thing going in politics . . . . Dick thinks elections are referendums on issues."

Goodman has hired orchestras, chartered helicopters, written jingles and even strapped a portable toilet to a donkey to create emotion in his ads. He tends to see a hero in every client. To him, George Bush was "the American eagle . . . a president we won't have to train" and Spiro Agnew was "my kind of guy."

The Hawkins ads were full of Goodman touches. One had helicopters hovering over a South American marijuana field; another an abandoned mother trying to make ends meet; a third pictured an ambulance arriving at a hospital with its siren screaming.

The ads were designed to showcase Hawkins' unusual Senate agenda: her advocacy of programs to find missing children, help displaced homemakers and curtail the illegal shipment of drugs into the country. Morris supplied the larger-than-life slogan:

"Paula Hawkins: Unique, Irreplaceable."

Graham's pollster, William Hamilton, and his media adviser, Bob Squier, had been predicting for months that Hawkins would launch a fall advertising blitz. Like Hawkins' consultants, they are professionals, part of a close-knit fraternity, a controversial political elite.

"There is no more significant change in the conduct of campaigns than the consultant's recent rise to prominence, if not preeminence," wrote Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. " They have inflicted severe damage upon the party system and masterminded the modern triumph of personality cults over party politics in the United States."

Consultants are part technicians, part mythmakers, part political scientists, part hustlers.

To them, politics is a giant chess match, and campaigns, a series of moves across a giant chess board. The early commericals were easy to anticipate. Public-opinion polls had shown both candidates to be popular as individuals, but Graham with a large lead -- ranging from 9 to 23 percent -- over Hawkins.

To keep raising the money needed to make the race competitive, Hawkins had to close the gap in the polls. A wave of advertising was the obvious answer.

The Graham team had also been at work. Hamilton had set up a series of "focus groups," small groups of Floridians asked to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of both candidates; Squier had shot some film of Graham for future ads and prepared a memo in which he proposed a campaign slogan: "Bob Graham. You know what he did in Florida. Think what he could do for Florida in Washington."

Both Hamilton and Squier have emotional ties to the race and consider it symbolic for their careers.

Hamilton grew up in Florida, received his first training in polling techniques at the University of Florida and started his firm (William R. Hamilton & Staff Inc.) there. He has conducted 250 polls in the state.

He is among the most widely respected pollsters in the Democratic Party. His reputation rests largely on his work in southern and border-state campaigns. Among his former clients are Jimmy Carter (in his 1970 race for the governorship of Georgia), Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.), Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D-Mo.) and Kentucky Gov. Martha Layne Collins (D).

But Hamilton had a bad year in 1984. His presidential candidate, Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), was an early loser in the primary season, and he said his firm's only victories were in House races.

Win/loss records aren't as important for pollsters as other consultants. Pollsters, Hamilton said in an interview, are basically researchers who "don't have black boxes . . . . Media and organizational consultants promise they're going to deliver something that wins. We promise we'll get the data and make the best out of data in terms of strategy. We hope we can make the difference, but we can't promise."

Squier, according to a National Journal survey, had the best year of anyone in the business in 1984, winning five of six races. He has worked for scores of winning and losing politicians, including Carter and the late Hubert H. Humphrey.

He helped elect one candidate, Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb (D), with ads showing him firing a pistol at a target range; another, former Mississippi governor William F. Winter (D), by putting him atop a National Guard tank; and another, former Kentucky governor John Y. Brown Jr. (D), by putting him on television with his photogenic wife, Phyllis George, a former Miss America.

But Squier and Graham have a special relationship. Squier helped make Graham governor twice; Graham helped make Squier rich.

"He is the franchise," said Squier, 51. "There's no question that Bob Graham invented this company. You have to remember, his was a race that wasn't supposed to be possible."

Squier, a commentator on NBC-TV, is treated like a visiting celebrity by Florida politicians. At a state Democratic Party banquet in Hollywood last month, he was introduced as, "the guru of media, the man who is responsible for bringing Bob Graham to this point."

Graham was an obscure liberal state senator from Dade County with a penchant for putting audiences to sleep when he hired Squier three years before the 1978 governor's race.

"He was the perfect candidate," said Squier. "He trusted me, and he trusted the new campaign technology. He was willing to sit down at one point in the campaign and write a check for $250,000 to keep us going."

Squier's strategy was to put Graham, a multimillionaire, to work in 100 different jobs -- from bellhop to chicken plucker. It was political gimmickry. And it worked.

The work days became Graham's trademark, and he continues them seven years later. Squier has remained his media adviser, producing ads for the governor's reelection campaign and several Graham-supported state referenda.

The 1986 Senate race will be lucrative for Squier. His firm (The Communications Co.) charges a $60,000 consulting fee, plus a 15 percent commission on every dollar spent on television or radio advertising. If Graham spends $3 million on ads, a conservative estimate, Squier's commission would be $450,000. Hamilton, by contrast, receives no commissions; he is paid a consulting fee and is paid for each poll he conducts.

On the wall of Charles R. Black's expensively furnished office in Old Town Alexandria hangs a photo of Hawkins. "To my good friend, and soldier of fortune," the senator wrote on it.

It is an apt description. Black, 38, a longtime friend and political adviser to Hawkins, is one of the most successful political operatives in the Republican Party.

His firm -- Black, Manafort and Stone -- could receive more than $500,000 in fees from the Hawkins campaign. This is based on a retainer (normally $75,000 to $125,000 per race) and the commission from placing television and radio advertising. He charges a lower commission than Squier's 15 percent, but the Hawkins campaign is expected to spend more than Graham's on advertising.

Black is the general consultant to Hawkins' campaign. "I put the whole thing together. I do the planning, the strategy. I help hire the other professionals and the campaign staff," he said. "Basically, I'm the bottom line. When I wake up in the morning, I have to make sure what's supposed to happen in the campaign that day happens."

Black is also a lobbyist. His considerable political connections are obviously an asset. Among his former clients are President Reagan, four Senate committee chairmen, Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), 1988 presidential hopeful Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.).

Black said he doesn't lobby Hawkins or any other current client. But he adds: "We have a lot of friends up there on Capitol Hill , and we give a lot of free political advice to people. I don't have any compunction about lobbying them if they're calling me for advice or help in fund-raising. Just like the White House. I was a total volunteer in the presidential campaign. So today, if they White House officials call me for a little favor, I don't mind lobbying them because it's not a professional relationship."

Black's roots are in the right wing of his party. He has been a Senate aide and campaign adviser to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.); executive director of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative student group; chairman of the National Conservative Political Action Committee; political director of the National Republican Committee and Reagan's 1980 campaign (a job he resigned when Reagan fired campaign manager John Sears) and "senior consultant" to the Reagan-Bush 1984 campaign.

Black's teammates in the Hawkins campaign are an eclectic lot. Goodman is a moderate Republican, who sometimes works for Democrats; Morris a registered Democrat who sometimes works for Republicans.

Goodman's background is in commercial advertising; his Baltimore agency was in business seven years before it did its first political race in 1966. It has since done about 100 races; 13 U.S. senators are current or former Goodman clients. Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) was the best man in Goodman's wedding.

Goodman is known for his "feel-good" approach to politics; Morris, a relative newcomer to national politics, for his ability to go for the jugular.

Morris, 38, is a self-taught pollster. His roots are on the issue side of New York Democratic politics.

He envisions himself as much a strategist as a pollster. He describes most other pollsters as "diagnosticians." "They don't prescribe drugs; they just tell you that you have cancer," he said. "After working with me, getting data from other pollsters is like getting data from a vending machine."

Morris' first big break came in Massachusetts in 1978 when he helped mastermind the upset victory of former governor Edward King, a conservative Democrat since turned Republican, over Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.

The following year, he approached Hawkins, a former member of the Florida Public Service Commission, with polling data he used to persuade her that she could be elected to the Senate. He and Black were the strategists behind her upset 1980 victory.

"Dick is a great guy to have around when the grenades start to drop," Goodman said.

"I throw them grenades back," boasts Morris.

A classic example of this occurred in the 1983 Mississippi gubernatorial race. Morris and Goodman were working for a Democrat, William A. Allain, who is now governor. Three weeks before the election, Republican supporters of Allain's opponent, Leon Bramlett, called a news conference during which three black transvestite prostitutes claimed Allain had engaged their services.

In a single day, Allain dropped 60 percentage points in Morris' polls. But Morris had gotten early word of the allegations and had prepared a wave of ads to counter them.

"There's a new word in Mississippi. The word is smear," said one ad. "We're being asked to believe the worst, the absolute worst about a man we've known and trusted for 25 years. Who are the people who are doing the charges and on whose say-so -- three prostitutes, three transvestites, each with long criminal records, each who admits they were paid $1,000 and $50 a day to keep up the story. We're a lot smarter than that in Mississippi."

Allain won the election.

The recent Hawkins ads impressed many Florida Democrats. "Hawkins is unique. That's been one of her problems: She is almost falling off the edge," said one party leader. "They've taken something bad and made it good. They're saying total concentration on something like missing children isn't weird. That's smart."

The ads caught the Graham team in limbo. The governor has formed a fund-raising committee, opened an office and hired a campaign manager, but he has yet to make a formal announcement of his candidacy.

Meanwhile, his office has been plagued by management shifts. His chief of staff, press secretary and speechwriter have all left during the last four months.

The campaign's response to the Hawkins commercials was a bit of guerrilla warfare, stage-managed by Squier. He was helped by two accidental events. One was a statement by John Walsh -- the star of a Hawkins ad about missing children -- that he would do a similar commercial for Graham, if asked.

Walsh, who has been a crusader against child abuse since his six-year-old son was murdered in 1981, happened to wander into Hawkins' office while she was taping commercials and agreed to ad-lib an ad for her, Goodman said. "It was almost as if God sent him to us . . . . That was probably the best thing I'll do in the entire campaign."

The other event began one night in mid-October when Squier's son, Mark, was at work in a Philadelphia video-processing firm, where copies of the Hawkins ads were being reproduced. By mistake, the ads appeared on a television monitor in a room where Mark Squier was eating a carryout Chinese dinner.

The young Squier told his father about the ads. "If I hadn't, he would have fired me," he said. Bob Squier promptly informed reporters that Hawkins was about to launch an ad blitz, something the campaign had repeatedly denied planning to do.

"I thought I was doing a public service," he said.

Goodman was furious about "the babbling to the press." He said it caused him "pangs of discomfort," "embarrassed a lot of people" and created "real shell shock" within the Hawkins campaign . . . . If this is a portent of things to come, it's pretty sick."

The ads, however, accomplished their mission. A Florida newspaper poll taken after the million-dollar blitz found Hawkins had drastically reduced Graham's lead, to 48 percent to 41 percent. In a poll by the same group of newspapers in March 1984, Graham led Hawkins by 22 percent.

"This is going to be a long and woolly affair," Morris said.