Florida's sizzling United States Senate race between Paula Hawkins and Bob Graham has been billed ``senator versus governor'' and ``Republican versus Democrat.'' But there's another aspect of this pivotal contest: Woman versus man.
Mrs. Hawkins, far behind here only three months ago, appears to be gaining. And Florida's women, supporting a Republican in unusually large numbers, are helping her do it.
The Hawkins-Graham race symbolizes what is happening this year across the country in American politics.
Never before have so many women -- 51 -- run for major statewide offices. And never before have women been so qualified for the offices they seek.
Six women are fighting for US Senate positions. Nine are battling for governorships. Twelve want to be lieutenant governors. Sixteen women are running for secretary of state, seven for state treasurer, and one for attorney general, according to figures compiled by the National Women's Political Caucus.
Experts say that this year the US may see an historic breakthrough for female candidates that opens doors for hundreds of women in future statewide campaigns. Eventually, that breakthrough at the state level could lead to women assuming such premier federal positions as secretary of state, secretary of defense, vice president, and president.
There will obviously be setbacks along the way, however, and one of those could come here in Florida next month. Mrs. Hawkins, a freshman senator, came into office in 1980 on a wave of support for Ronald Reagan. Even then, she got only 52 percent of the vote in Florida, and trailed Mr. Reagan by about 200,000 votes.
Now Senator Hawkins is up against the most popular politician in the state, Governor Graham, who has led in almost every poll on the Senate race, though his margin has been diminishing.
Yet two things may come to Hawkins' rescue in these closing weeks: her Republican affiliation and her gender.
Political analysts say that in certain races, women appear to have advantages over male candidates -- but not always.
Women often do better as Republicans than as Democrats, notes John Sears, a consultant who helped guide Reagan's early campaign for the presidency.
Mr. Sears says: ``It's been an odd situation with women candidates. The Democrats, of course, have stronger positions on activist women's issues. So a lot of activist women have gravitated into the Democratic Party.''
But Democrats worry that activist women candidates will drive away Southern whites, Northern blue collar workers, and others of a conservative bent who have traditionally voted Democratic. The effect is sometimes divisive for the party.
On the other hand, Republican women, who are more conservative, are able to hold almost all of the traditional Republican vote. Republicans, including men, appear to be more loyal to the party, and even tolerate some Republican women candidates who are more liberal than they. In addition, Republican women candidates draw some of the Democratic women's vote -- sometimes just enough to win elections.
Joe Gaylord, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, says women candidates have another advantage: ``People generally believe they are more sensitive.'' That is especially important for Republicans because the party is perceived as being insensitive to the poor and women, among other groups, Mr. Gaylord notes.
All of that still would not be enough if the women weren't qualified. But Peter Hart, a leading Democratic pollster, observes that the quality of women candidates is soaring. ``It's very different this year from 1984 and 1982,'' Mr. Hart says. ``This year women were nominated in terms of competence and ability to win votes, rather than just on the basis of gender. . . . They're much better, much more experienced.''
Too many women were picked earlier because ``people thought they would look fine on a big ticket,'' the pollster adds.
Former US Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, chosen by Walter Mondale as his vice-presidential running mate, was obviously the best-known of the 1984 women candidates. She gets both cheers and boos from analysts.
Sears says simply: ``The trouble was, . . . if you had been able to forget the fact that she was a woman, you never would have nominated her.''
Jeannine E. Grenier, editor of Women's Political Times, does not argue with Sears's point, but she notes that Ms. Ferraro ``opened politics up on a wide scale'' for women. It was ``amazing,'' says Ms. Grenier. She adds that Ferraro made offices like governor and senator seem within reach of women.
Hawkins was one of the first to win such an office on her own. Her task now will be to show Florida voters that being a woman does make a difference in the Senate.
She has tried to do that by leading the fight for the Missing Child Assistance Act, sponsoring a bill to deal with child abuse, and fighting illegal drugs because of the threat they pose to the family.
While some detractors charge that Hawkins dwells on peripheral matters, she pushes ahead with family issues. That may turn out to have more appeal at the polls Nov. 4 than some critics expect. The next article in this series will deal with money and politics.