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

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.''

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.

The House of Representatives, currently made up of 252 Democrats and 180 Republicans, already supports liberal policies on nuclear issues, says Mr. Hartz.

``We went through a series of votes in the House just two or three weeks ago which basically had a clean sweep for disarmament,'' he notes. ``We won on nuclear testing, on SALT (strategic arms limitations), on star-wars reduction, on the antisatellite moratorium, and on chemical weapons.''

But in the Senate: ``We lost on star wars by one vote, we lost the chemical-weapons vote on a tie, we were only able to pass nonbinding resolutions on nuclear testing and strategic-arms limits. And on another issue we work with, Central America, we lost by three votes,'' Hartz says.

A Republican defeat in November would ``completely change the way things have been going here for peace and arms control,'' Hartz asserts.

Those sentiments are echoed by Robert Borosage, director of one of Washington's largest liberal think tanks, the Institute for Policy Studies.

Mr. Borosage says one of the first results of a Democratic victory would probably be a pullout from Nicaragua, where Reagan has been aiding the contras against the communist government. US aid to rebels in Angola would also screech to a halt, Borosage predicts.

There would be other results: rejection of ``extreme'' Reagan nominees to the federal courts, more emphasis on civil rights, less attention to ``social'' issues like abortion and school prayer.

Further, a Democratic victory would help rebuild that party. Borosage sees a new, liberal populism emerging within the Democratic Party, a populism that draws its strength from grass-roots, citizen-action groups like those which helped elect Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois and Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa in 1984.

These new populists would emphasize issues like corporate responsibility, control of toxic wastes, progressive taxation, and the environmental protection, which have gotten little attention from Republicans, Borosage says.

Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess, author of ``The Ultimate Insiders: US Senators in the National Media,'' says Reagan would lose more than just votes if the Senate goes Democratic.

Senate Republicans have brought a heavy dose of pragmatism to the White House. They've told him what is possible, and what isn't.

``They've worked well for the President . . . even when they seem to be opposing him,'' says Mr. Hess. ``They've been able to tell him things he should know, in terms of sensitivity to the countryside [and] what people are really thinking about.''

Reagan still has much to achieve, Hess says, but it will be ``far more difficult if the Republicans lose control.''

However, political veteran Richard Scammon, director of the Elections Research Center, cautions against overstating the results of a Republican loss.

Mr. Scammon concedes that Democrats may well take over the Florida Senate seat, for example. But is it really that important? Scammon asks: Will a new Democratic senator from Florida really vote that differently from the old Republican one? He doubts it.

Scammon doesn't deny that a Republican loss would be important. But he suggests the White House may be overblowing the stakes.

``All the party people tend to look at these things much too much in party terms,'' he says. ``We all know that the majority of senators are either Demicans or Republicrats. [That is, part Democrat, part Republican.] In other words, they are representing their states, and they are going to vote the way their states tell them to.''

Scammon concludes with one final thought: Perhaps the worst thing that could happen to the Democrats this year is to win. If Democrats hold both houses of Congress, they will be blamed for everything. Then President Reagan can revive the spirit of Harry Truman in the White House, railing at the ``do-nothing'' Congress without restraint. If Reagan handled it right, a Republican loss this year could be turned into a huge Republican comeback in 1988, Scammon says.

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