Whatever else you say about Paula Hawkins, you have to admit she is different.

When Sen. Robert J. Dole [R-Kan.] was hospitalized with a kidney disorder, the new Republican Florida senator wrote him a note prescribing magnesium tablets.

When an aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy telephone to tell her the Massachusetts Democrat was expecting her for a business lunch in his office, Hawkins, noting that she chairs a subcommittee on which both serve, reportedly said, "I'm the chairman. Tell him to come here."

When Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) questioned President Reagan's budget cuts, Hawkins offered to finance a poll of Schroeder's Denver constituents personally to see what they felt.

When Reagan was shot, she suggested a national blackout of news about his accused assassin, John W. Hinckley Jr., on the grounds that publicity would simply encourage other shootings.

When she received a mysterious looking package containing a fuel additive, she announced she'd hired a bodyguard to protect her.

Then, there was Hawkins' infamous "steak and jail" luncheon, where she announced her first big legislative initiative as a new senator: a crackdown on food-stamp cheats. The proposal was controversial enough in itself. But what really got her in hot water was unveiling it at a luncheon while lobbyists ate fresh strawberries, asparagus and New York strip sirloin steak.

It was inevitable that Hawkins would stir strong emotions in Washington. Not only is she one of two women in the Senate, she's an outspoken conservative with a sharp tongue.

She opposes the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion and many of the other goals of the feminist movement. When a group of Republican women, including Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.), the other woman senator, went to the White House to complain about the failure of the Reagan administration to appoint more women to federal jobs, Hawkins stayed away.

""I'm not a person,'' she told Sen. Jessee Helms (R.-N.C.) at one particularly revealing point when he was stumbling over how to address her. I'm a lady.''

She is, by all accounts, an amazing lady. She is unpredictable, tough and tenacious, irreverent and irrepressible. During hearings, she chews gum and scratches table tops with her long fingernails.

Women in top jobs in Washington, and particularly in the Senate, are rare enough to be judged and described differently from men. And Hawkins is no exception. She is watched, and commented on, more than her male counterparts. Her manner invites controversy.

"I think Washington is accustomed to people couching everything they say," the senator's longtime assistant, Ken Mingledorff, says. "You never have any doubt about where Paula Hawkins stands. She shoots straight, sometimes a little fast, but always straight."

Hawkins, says one admiring Florida reporter, "has made a career of being professionally adorable."

In Florida, where she served six years on the Public Service Commission, Hawkins, 54, cultivated an image of being a "Maitland housewife" fighting for little people. In Washington, she portrays herself as the small-town girl come to the big city.

"I tipped five senators because they had black ties on," she said in a recent interview. "The only people in my home town who wear black ties are head waiters. Up here, I've found every other function is a formal black tie one."

Hawkins came to Washington with no set legislative agenda, but a reputation as tough maverick. She describes herself as a combination of "perfume and steel," a conservative on economic issues and a moderate on some social issues. "I just want to simplify government, and try to make it relate to the man on the street," she says.

Like most new senators, she has found much of her time taken up with problems in her home state. She has scored some important victories here. She has gotten more immigration officials transferred to Miami, sucessfully lobbied the Defense Department to keep from closing Whiting Field in northwest Florida, and gotten sugar parity provisions written into the farm bill.

In committee hearings, where the Senate does most of its work, she asks the kind of question a Maitland housewife might ask around the breakfast table. Often she refers to advice she's received from cab drivers. On the day a Senate subcommittee she chairs opened hearings on an investigation into the war on cancer, Hawkins asked:

What kind of cancer killed John Wayne? How can all these high-powered private doctors who are supposed to watch over federal cancer research efforts do their jobs when they only meet for three hours every couple months? And what about laetrile, anyway, "for those of us who know individuals who thought they were on the road to death but took laetrile and two years later seem to be okay? There seem to be enough of these isolated cases to keep hopes alive."

At confirmation hearings for Agriculture Secretary John R. Block, Hawkins wanted to know how many of the 85,000 employes in the department actually worked. "I walked through those buildings the other day, and I must say I was overwhelmed with the number of bodies in the hall, in the cafeteria, and other places," she said. "I felt at that particular hour they should not be there."

She also suggested that Block and his wife go to Japan and talk the Japanese into buying Florida oranges and grapefruit. When Richard Lyng, the deputy secretary, came before the committee, Hawkins wanted to know what the Agriculture Department was doing about making sure Haitian boat people immigrating to Florida aren't bringing disease with them.

"Are we inspecting them as they arrive?" she asked. "Is there someone that meets them at the shore with food stamps?"

Hawkins says she thinks she and many of the 14 other Republican freshmen senators are different from their peers. "I don't think any of us came here to stay a long time," she said in an interview. "I get the feeling we're a product of the times, and that the electorate was looking for someone to come to Washington for a few years and then go home again."

You feel a certain impatience with the freshmen you don't get with the seniors," she continued. "There are a lot of us who are overzealous and want responses faster."

The year has been a frantic one for the new Republicans in Congress. With the GOP takeover of the Senate, each was assigned one or more subcommittees to chair. This gave each some turf and patronage of his own as well as forum from which to attract attention. It also gave them more work, and a chance to embarrass themselves.

She chairs the Agriculture subcommittee on credit and rural electrification and the Labor and Human Resources subcommittee on investigations. Each has held one set of hearings.

Her life in Washington has been dominated by work on the farm bill and an enless round of meetings with constituents, lobbyists and reporters. In the Agriculture Committee, her proposal to jail food-stamp cheaters was modified, but she did get written into the farm bill a notice that information on food-stamp applications was to be subject to independent verification. In the Labor and Human Resources Committee, she occassionally deserts her conservative counterparts and votes with the Democrats.

Hawkins, who has an apartment in the Watergate complex, flies home each weekend to be with her husband, Gene, an electronics engineer, in their Winter Park home (they moved from nearby Maitland two year ago). He has joined the Senate Wives Club, now renamed the Senate Spouse Club, where Sen. Strom Thurmond's (R-S.C.) wife, Nancy, has been appointed his "big sister."

Gene Hawkins is apparently the only Senate husband in history. All other women senators have either been widowed or divorced (Kassebaum is divorced). His wife describes him as "a real sports." He made a pledge to one reporter that tends to confirm that:

"I give you an absolute, unqualified guarantee that in no way will I ever pose for Playboy magazine and write a congressional expose like Rita Jenrette," he said.