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Florida contest typifies fight for US Senate control. Reagan has big stake in such races as Graham vs. Hawkins

By John DillinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 8, 1986

Tallahassee, Fla.

A White House official puts the matter bluntly: ``The American people are going to judge the political success of the Reagan presidency on this year's Senate elections.''

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Sen. Paul Laxalt (R) of Nevada, President Reagan's closest friend on Capitol Hill, describes the stakes even more starkly. If the Republicans lose control of the United States Senate in November, he says, Mr. Reagan will face ``two years of purgatory'' in Congress.

The 1986 Senate races -- spanning 34 states -- have emerged as Ronald Reagan's ultimate battle for political power and prestige in Washington. This will be the last time that he, as a sitting president, can demonstrate his immense appeal and ensure his place as one of the century's most popular presidents.

One White House adviser says a Republican victory in November will ensure the party's power in Washington far into the 1990s. But he warns that a loss of the Senate this year could begin a downward spiral that could cost the GOP the White House in 1988.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But the high stakes attached by the White House to the 1986 Senate races have escalated interest nationwide, especially in about a dozen closely fought contests.

One of the most pivotal races is being fought here in Florida. The contest here, which will cost millions of dollars on both sides, reflects all the high hopes and all the agonizing frustrations now being felt by top-level White House strategists.

Sen. Paula Hawkins, a freshman Republican who rode into office on Reagan's presidential coattails in 1980, is a heavy underdog in her bid for reelection. Her problems are manifold.

She is being challenged by the most popular politician in Florida, Democratic Gov. Bob Graham, who boasts a public approval rating of more than 80 percent. Mrs. Hawkins has trailed by as much as 22 points in the polls, a situation that has made it harder for her to raise funds. Her opponent has a huge campaign war chest, as well as a personal fortune that he could pour into the fray at the last moment.

Worst of all, Hawkins has been troubled by back problems, the result of an accident that sidelined her campaign for several months and is still forcing her to campaign only part-time.

But no one is saying this race is over.

One reason is Hawkins herself. She is one of the toughest campaigners around, a come-from-behind politician who has surprised Florida voters more than once.

A leading Florida Republican says: ``Paula's like a teabag. You have to put her in hot water to see how strong she is.''

Further, Florida remains a ``must'' state for the President, and he's vowed to do everything possible to keep it Republican.

The GOP currently holds only a 53-to-47 margin in the Senate, and at least six GOP seats appear in serious danger. Florida could tip the balance, and ensure Republican -- or Democratic -- control for the next two years. The President already has flown into Florida twice this year to help Senator Hawkins raise funds. And he's promised to return again in October.

Republican insiders say the struggle for Senate control is a battle they must win. They shudder at the possible consequences of a Democratic takeover.

Example: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts would replace conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah at chairman of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources.

Example: Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D) of Delaware, who has made a point of attacking Reagan's court nominees, would become chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary in place of Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina.

Example: Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas would drop to minority leader and Democrats would control the agenda of debates and voting in the Senate.

A Democratic takeover would prompt liberals to take fresh aim at Reagan policies at home and abroad.

Jerry Hartz, legislative director for SANE-PAC, which specializes in nuclear issues, notes that the Senate is the only thing holding back liberal causes.