Paula Hawkins' Christmas card had to be seen to be disbelieved. It featured a large photograph of an arch of balloons, beneath which is a podium, at which stands Ronald Reagan, behind whom beams Hawkins, over whom looms a seasonal message: "Senator Paula Hawkins."

'Tis the season, till November, for the freshman class of 12 Republican senators to campaign with all weapons, even Christmas cards. The task is to prove that 1980 was not a fluke, not an unrepeatable intersection of Reagan's charm and Carter's lack of it.

Since 1964, only one senator has been reelected from Florida, land of paper plates and disposable politicians. In 1980, Hawkins got 52 percent. In 1986, running against a popular governor, Bob Graham, she is among the most vulnerable of the 18 Republican senators seeking reelection. Her strategy involves making a virtue of being marginal.

Her media theme is: "Unique. Irreplaceable." It underscores her highly publicized identification with easily publicized issues such as missing children, child abuse, child pornography, day care for "latchkey" children, and trafficking in Quaaludes. A Hawkins aide waxes poetic: Robert Frost said poetry is about grief, and politics is about grievances, and Hawkins translates griefs into grievances. Hawkins' campaign says, in effect: her concerns are not the central issues of national life, but if she were not in the Senate they would not be anywhere on the nation's agenda.

Graham, who physically resembles his southern accent (no hard edges), tartly accuses Hawkins of "the miniaturization of the Senate" and "redefining the scope of the office to fit the stature of the candidate."

Florida has been romanticized as "a sublimated mistress" and deromanticized as "just sand with business possibilities." Whatever it is, it is jumping. And, says Graham, there is nothing marginal about its problems. By the end of the century it will be the third most populous state, and national issues will have special intensity here. It is an international trading center. Soon one in five citizens here will be over 65, and 400,000 will be over 85. It has the drug and immigration problems that come with 3,700 miles of coastline.

In 1984, two popular southern governors -- Mississippi's Winter and North Carolina's Hunt -- lost Senate contests against Republican incumbents, which suggests that Hawkins is onto something: voters think governors and senators are quite different creatures. When voters send a governor to the state capital, they send an administrator to administer. When they send a senator to Washington, they send a point of view, someone to pipe up in a distant chorus. If a governor does poorly, potholes multiply and industry migrates. Standards of success and failure in the Senate are unclear.

Graham notes that none of the 20 senators from the 10 largest states is a former governor, and he thinks the Senate needs to be leavened by people who have had to make government operate. Certainly the national Democratic Party does not have too many people like Graham. He supports aid for Nicaraguan contras. He favors cutting the deficit "vertically rather than horizontally." That is, he favors elimination of entire programs that non-federal governments can perform, rather than just nibbling at most programs, as under Gramm-Rudman. To avoid a state income tax Graham, like his predecessors, has taxed everything except daydreams, and his support for capital punishment has demonstrated, again, the power of that issue to immunize a politician against the dreaded charge of liberalism.

Graham should not condescend too loftily concerning Hawkins' use of peripheral but splashy issues. Although he is not otherwise demented, he does spend a day a month doing some common job -- lumberman, social worker, whatever -- on the theory that such brief encounters with toil keep the mighty in touch with the humble. But what can you expect from the state that first elected someone to the Senate because he walked around the state? (The senator, Lawton Chiles, is the one who has broken the reelection barrier.)

However, Florida politics has become a mite more refined since Gov. Catts (a Prohibitionist) was defeated by a man who told voters: "You gave your support to Catts on his promise to run the Pope out of business. Did he keep his promise? No! While he was governor, mind you, and supposed to be looking after that promise, one Pope died and he let them appoint another without raising a finger to stop it."

But politics is irreducibly chaotic in a state this enormous: it is a shorter drive from Pensacola to Chicago than to Key West. The electorate has a weak collective memory because upwards of 1,000 newcomers unpack each day, and the retirees give Florida the nation's highest death rate. Florida changes substantially during a senator's term. Eleven months and perhaps that many millions of dollars from now, Florida will suggest how the public's notion of a senator is changing.