If Paul Revere came riding back today, he might well look like a Wall Street lawyer, sound like a recording of Sen. Claghorn played at the wrong speed and spend his days as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

In other words, he would come back as Sen. Ernest Frederick (Fritz) Hollings (D-S.C.), who is now riding high in Congress as he sounds the alarm for a stronger defense of the national homestead.

Once known mainly as one of a new breed of Southern moderates, who defied segregation and other orthodoxies of the Old South, Hollings has proven over the years to be a devoted protector of South Carolina's interests -- from textiles and tobacco to the Pentagon's investment in Charleston harbor.

As governor, he played a key role in the desegregation of Clemson University at a time when other Southern governors were shouting defiance, and he was one of John F. Kennedy's few early Southern supporters for the presidency in 1960.

He made an issue out of hunger among poor people in his home state and was an early backer of the food stamp program. Although always considered a defense hardliner, he drew the line on the Vietnam war before many of his colleagues did and voted last year for the Panama Canal treaties as well as this year for aid to Nicaragua.

But he has never stepped too far over the line that so often divides a lawmaker from his constituents at election time. And now, as he runs for a third full term, he has emerged as one of the leading congressional champions of a new cause that makes for bell-ringing politics in South Carolina as well as many other states: More money for defense and belt-tightening for just about everything else.

More than most of his colleagues, including some better known national figures, the tall, silver-haired South Carolinian is in a position to do something about it.

When Edmund S. Muskie left the Senate earlier this year to become secretary of state, the 58-year-old Hollings ended 14 years of semi-obscurity in the Senate to take over its Budget Committee.

The shift came just as pursuit of a balanced budget became a political obsession at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, testing Holling's leadership skills as they have never been tested before outside of an unsuccessful bid to become Senate majority leader four years ago.

By most accounts, he performed adroitly. "A tough negotiator and a fair guy," said his House budget counterpart, Rep. Robert N. Giaimo (D-Conn.).

And, even if the budget topples into a deficit because of the recession, as most economists expect, it will bear a distinctly Hollings imprint in scaling back domestic social programs to provide for a big defense increase within the restraints of theoretical balance.

Moreover, if Hollings is as successful in future years as he has been so far this year, spending for defense and restraint on the home-front will predominate for the next five years, at least -- an unsettling prospect for congressional liberals who are already chafing under Hollings' sense of priorities.

"There's going to have to be five years steady effort to increase defense," he said in an interview. "And five years' steady effort to keep the budget in balance or near balance . . . . I feel as strongly about one as I do about the other."

As a leading shaper of the ntional budget, Hollings cuts an unusual figure -- an almost central casting model of a patrician senator with a down-home Southern flair for story telling and flamboyant oratory, rich with the rhythms of old Charleston, that stands out in bold relief against the sometimes flat sounds of today's congressional debates.

But strip away the drawling incantations, and a listener -- especially a victim of Hollings' verbal whip cracks -- will also find one of the sharpest tongues in the Senate.

This courtly Southerner has called President Carter a "hypocrite" and referred to Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.), one of his frequent oratorical sparring partners, as representing the "fiscal debauchery of New York."

One federal regulator recalls being compared by Hollings to a "one-eyed javelin thrower -- you never hit anything but you sure keep everyone on the edge of their seats."

Hollings is also a master at the Senate art of spearing a colleague in countless ways without exactly breaking the rules of gentlemanly combat. Just this week he had this to say of Moynihan (or Monahan as Hollings always calls him) during a debate on federal loans to students at church-supported colleges:

"I suppose Mr. Moynihan is to be commended for his tenacity and single-mindedness of purpose, but effort alone -- especially effort directed toward such an unworthy and hollow goal -- will not meet even the minimal standard of approval demanded by this body . . . . "

For his knuckle-rapping of Carter for plunging at mid-point into the congressional budget debate, Hollings got plaudits from some of his colleagues, as well as headlines in the papers. But some say he spears himself as well when he indulges in rhetorical overkill, especially when speaking of his colleagues, many of whom have long memories as well as the opportunity for retaliation.

Another complaint, largely from liberals whose favorite social programs were squeezed in the 1981 budget to accommodate defense increases, is that Hollings wears blinders when it comes to defense spending.

"It's all he's really interested in," said one of his congressional colleagues, "and that's not right for someone who is supposed to be weighing budget priorities with balanced concern for all the different kinds of needs the country has."

Rep. Leon Panetta (D-Calif.), a House budget conferee who disagreed with Hollings on the guns-vs.-butter issue, saw a change in Hollings, however, as the budget deliberations proceded. "As the conferences went on and other issues developed, he was not as totally obstinate," said Panetta. "I see a lot of room for growth, and I think that potential is there."

Another House conferee who often disagreed with Hollings, Rep. William M. Brodhead (D-Mich.), said he was "very favorably impressed" by the South Carolinian. "He felt very deeply about it [defense] and you have to respect that."

Yet a Senate colleague said Hollings once told him that his crusade for defense was dictated largely by the demands of "local politics" in the strongly hawkish state of South Carolina.

And House budget conferees note that it wasn't until the day after Hollings handily won his Democratic primary contest for reelection earlier this month, with more than 80 percent of the vote, that he made the largely symbolic concessions on defense that enabled Congress to break a deadlock and pass its first budget resolution for 1981.

Hollings winces at suggestions that he is a "miliary nut running loose," as he once put it, and says the country is simply making up for lost time when it let its defense investments deteriorate.

To those who criticize him for cutting social programs, including the food stamp program he helped sponsor, Hollings described national defense as the country's foremost social program and says food stamps have been distributed to so many Americans that they have lost their original purpose of helping the "hungry poor."

Although he is regarded as a relatively safe bet for reelection, even if Ronald Reagan sweeps South Carolina for the Republican presidential ticket in November, Hollings appears to be leaving nothing to luck -- including his distance from Carter.

Asked if he perhaps harbors national political ambitions, he retorted without a pause, "I'm afraid Jimmy Carter's ruined it for our section of the country. They'd say, 'Oh, here comes another one of them'"