President Reagan has been to Florida twice this year, and plans to drop in again later this month. Vice-President George Bush has visited three times, and there have also been trips here by Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, and former United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. The motive for all of these visits: to raise money for Republican Sen. Paula Hawkins. Cold cash -- millions of dollars -- has become central to modern-day American politics. The Watergate scandal, new campaign laws, and tireless work by reformers have done nothing to diminish the power of the dollar in the US system. More than ever, money can be used to sway public opinion, generate voter support, and turn a likely loser into a sure winner.
Republicans, with Mr. Reagan leading the way, have pioneered new methods to raise and spend money. The President has proven to be a particularly adept fund-raiser. In 22 trips to 20 states this year, he has brought in $28 million in contributions, including $16 million for Republican candidates for the Senate, according to an official at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Yet that's only a fraction of the $400 million or so that candidates are expected to spend this year running for the House and Senate. ``It's getting close to being out of hand,'' says Democratic fund-raiser Randy Wilhelm. ``Each year, more and more campaigns are spending more money than they really need to spend.''
Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, says the Republican advantage in fund raising will make a tremendous difference in this year's races. If Democrats raised ``anywhere near equal'' the amount raised by Republicans, he says, Senate races ``wouldn't be a contest in 1986.''
Few states will see more money flying around in the campaign this year than Florida. Spending in the US Senate race alone could climb to more than $12 million by Nov. 4.
Florida Gov. Bob Graham, the Democratic nominee for the Senate, expects to pour $5.5 million into the contest, including about $3.3 million for television ads. That's more than any other Democratic challenger in the country this year.
Senator Hawkins, the freshman Republican defending her seat, will probably spend even more. She's getting massive help from the White House (one Reagan visit raised about $600,000) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which will chip in about $750,000. Her total could reach $6.5 million.
All of this spending alarms some reformers, such as Common Cause, which charges that money is buying too much power and influence in Washington. Common Cause has been particularly outspoken about campaign contributions from political action committees (PACs).
Yet campaign reforms after Watergate made a tremendous impact on the way candidates like Governor Graham and Mrs. Hawkins raise their funds.
There was a time when ``fat cats'' seeking influence in Washington could write a check for $10,000 or $25,000. It made fund raising easy for candidates. But it shocked the sensibilities of American voters.
Congress clamped a $1,000 ceiling on contributions, required full disclosure, and revolutionized campaign finance. Yet politicians continue to compete for money as furiously as they compete for votes.
One major effect of reform has been to increase the workload of politicians. Raising $10,000 today might require telephone calls to 10 people, or 100. It's a laborious, distasteful process that few politicians like.
Graham's aides say that earlier in the campaign he was spending as much as 50 percent of his time just raising money, and Hawkins says she has spent an equivalent amount of time. She has flown frequently to out-of-state receptions and dinners to court donors.
Says fund-raiser Wilhelm: ``Candidates hate it. If they spend 10 percent of their time raising money, they'll swear it's 50 percent because it just seems like it. It's the thing they like least.
``Even if you do most of the work for them, give them a list of 20 names to call to ask for money, they will find any excuse not to sit down and actually make those calls.''
Yet Mr. Wilhelm and others concede that politics today has become largely a scramble for money. Today's electronic media, and the nation's growing population, require it.
Take Florida. About 3 million people are expected at the polls in November. If Graham and Hawkins shook the hands of 120 people an hour for 24 hours a day (an obvious impossibility) it would take three years to meet everyone in the state. If they made 10 speeches a day to audiences of 100 persons, it would take eight years to reach every voter.
The only viable alternative is television -- and that takes cash. A major purchase in all 10 Florida media markets for two weeks can gobble up $1 million.
Democrats recognize that in this battle for funds, they have been outdone by the GOP. Although Republicans have a hoary reputation for being the party of the rich, Democrats grudgingly concede that it isn't the rich, but the middle class, which has put the GOP so far ahead in the money-raising field.
The GOP has perfected its fund-raising techniques under post-Watergate conditions. Through direct mail, phone banks, and other techniques, it has tapped the small donor -- $10 to $100 -- in ways that make Democrats envious. Ironically, it is Democrats who often must rely more heavily on large contributors -- such as those who attended the Barbra Streisand party recently in California at $5,000 a couple.
Here in Florida, Hawkins follows the national Republican pattern by raising much of her campaign money from middle-class voters through direct mail. She began putting together her campaign warchest way back in 1983. Graham, in true Democratic form, relies on receptions, dinners, or sparkly events such as last month's gala in Miami harbor aboard the SS Norway where supporters contributed more than $100,000.
Does all this mean the candidates have sold out to the highest bidder? Furman University Prof. John Green, an expert on PACs, says no.
The main thing money buys is ``access,'' he explains, a willingness to listen. When a $1,000 contributor calls, a senator usually answers. Last of six articles.