After months of indecision, Gov. Robert Graham finally brought his money men and his political gurus together on a sweltering day in early summer for a serious discussion in the board room of his family-owned business, the Graham Companies Inc., in suburban Miami Lakes.

The subject was a prospective Graham run for the U.S. Senate next year.

The 11 trusted men around the rectangular table all knew each other. Most had worked in Graham's two campaigns for governor; all but two had attended a similar meeting called to discuss the 1986 Senate race in the same room last Feb. 10. Graham, a chubby-cheeked Democrat of 48 years with a perpetual Florida tan, shocked everyone at the earlier meeting by saying, "I'm not ready to tell you what my decision will be."

The governor promised a decision by March, but March came and went without one. So did April, May and most of June.

Now there was a nagging sense of frustration around the table.

Everyone there expected Graham to challenge Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.). Many were already predicting it would be among the most expensive and hardest-fought contests in the 1986 battle between Republicans and Democrats for control of the Senate. The race would offer a richly hued portrait of modern American politics: two popular, big-name candidates, big money, big media, and well-known political consultants, all doing battle in the nation's fastest-growing megastate.

"It's a big race, a kind of trend-setter," Charles Black, Hawkins' chief political adviser, said. "Graham is one of the most popular candidates the Democrats have to put up. If Hawkins wins, it is hard to see how the Democrats can take the Senate."

Graham's money men, Ronald Book, a Miami lawyer, and Frank Pignone, an Orlando airline pilot and businessman, were impatient. They wanted to get going. So did the political hired hands from Washington, Bill Hamilton, the gray-bearded pollster, and media adviser Bob Squier, who one Graham adviser said "was wearing his 'Miami Vice' outfit."

Hawkins, one of only two women in the Senate, had gotten the jump on Graham. She had been campaigning for reelection for months, and had recently raised almost $1 million at a gala with President Reagan. Hawkins already had $1.3 million in the bank, twice as much as she spent in her 1980 campaign.

The polls said Graham was comfortably ahead -- by margins of 9 to 23 percentage points in recent months. But could he be overconfident? Did the men around him in Tallahassee underestimate the opposition? Was he hungry enough?

Everyone sitting at that conference table knew how much Graham loved being governor. He had coveted the job ever since his father, Ernest Graham, a state senator and dairy owner, had run unsuccessfully for it in 1944.

But running for the U.S. Senate was another matter. The national landscape is littered with the political remains of popular governors who have failed in attempts to become U.S. senators.Omens in '84?

Two of Graham's fellow southern Democratic governors, William F. Winter of Mississippi, and James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, lost to incumbent Republicans in 1984 after beginning their races with high hopes. Winter was trounced by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.); Hunt was defeated by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in one of the meanest and the most expensive Senate races in history.

Were the fates aligned against governors running for the Senate? The Hawkins campaign team argued as much. They said early polls exaggerate the popularity of governors and underestimate the strength of incumbent senators such as Hawkins.

"A governor lives in the state. He's the hometown kid. He's on TV every night," Robert Goodman, Hawkins' media adviser, said. "A senator is someone who has been exiled from the state for six years and has come back from the wars to tell people, 'This is how the war was.' "

"The big challenge for a governor is to make the transition to federal issues, and to fight on the turf of the incumbent," said Black, who worked on Helms' 1984 reelection campaign. "That's trickier than it sounds. Once the race starts and you're on the federal turf, you don't get the bang of the day-to-day forum of the governorship. You have to have a very clear agenda on national issues, or else it's hard to sustain any momentum."

The crowd around the table in Miami Lakes didn't buy this argument.

Their big concern was money. The great debate at the February meeting was when to start raising funds. The money men wanted to begin while the state legislature was in session; top aides in the governor's office argued that could give the appearance of a shakedown and endanger Graham's legislative program.

The money men lost the debate.

Now Squier and Hamilton brought troubling words from Washington, where some were already referring to the Graham-Hawkins matchup as "the Helms-Hunt race of 1986." Squier, according to several persons present, warned that Hawkins would wage a "mean, tough, no-holds-barred campaign" with "more money than anyone at this table can comprehend," perhaps $8 million to $10 million.

The talk of so much money bothered Bill Graham, the governor's older brother, and Aaron Podhurst, a Miami lawyer and old family friend. According to several persons there, they both complained about the unseemliness of "an orgy of fund-raising."

But there was little doubt among the politicos around the table that the 1986 Senate race would be the most expensive campaign in state history.

Florida is a big-media, big-money state with an unstable, unpredictable electorate. It is in the midst of a population boom. Only one in three of the people who reside here was born in the state; one in five moved here in the last decade.

Television is everything to Florida politics and, for a candidate, it is expensive.

"Florida is one state where you have to control the agenda. It's an unconnected state. There's no political structure in place," pollster Hamilton said. "Mainly, the campaign will be a war waged over the tubes. It's a battle over dialogue. So many people have just moved into the state. They have new friends and homes. They don't have any clubs or cultural tradition to connect with. History doesn't mean much to them. They get all their information from the media. It is the paid media that controls the agenda."

Graham was a creation of television. His 1978 gubernatorial campaign was a triumph of political image-making. It was built around 100 "workdays" in which Graham, then a little-known state senator from Dade County, worked as a waiter, bellhop, chicken plucker, pooper scooper, pulpwood skidder and orange picker, among other jobs.

Television stations loved the workdays. So did Squier. Graham had grown up in a prosperous family, graduated from Harvard Law School and become a multimillionaire in the land development business. (His half-brother Philip L. Graham, was publisher of The Washington Post from 1946 until his death in 1963.) The workdays made candidate Graham look like Everyman. They humanized him. Not surprisingly, Graham continued them as governor. They had become an integral part of his image.

That image has served Graham well. In 1982, he won reelection with 65 percent of the vote. Now, after almost seven years in office, Graham is extraordinarily popular. A Hamilton poll for the Florida Democratic Party found 85 percent of state voters gave him a favorable job rating.

Hawkins also is popular. Only five times in history have Republicans won statewide races in Florida; Hawkins has been the GOP candidate in three of those races. Her pollster, Dick Morris, says Florida voters gave her a 75 percent job approval rating in his polls. Hawkins Attack Expected

But neither Graham nor Hawkins has ever been subjected to the kind of prolonged negative attacks that are expected in the 1986 race. As the underdog, Hawkins was expected to attack first and hardest. But on what front would she attack? And when?

These would become key questions in the political chess match in the months to come.

"My assumption is they'll go on the attack, and go on the attack early," Squier said later. "Bob Goodman Hawkins' media adviser will trot out ads by late summer to raise her Hawkins' standing in the polls. They need to convince the RNC the Republican National Committee and the PACs political action committees that she has a chance. She has to move those poll numbers and move them soon. So she has to do a campaign in Florida that has an impact in Washington."

"I think they'd be crazy not to go negative before January," Hamilton said. "They must hurt Bob Graham. She can't win on her own."

Graham's political gurus also thought they knew on what front Hawkins would attack. They believed she would hammer at Graham for raising taxes, painting him as an old-fashioned liberal Democrat.

The Tallahassee crowd wasn't worried about either. Graham, they said, had shown surprising strength among Republicans and conservative Democrats, partially for his advocacy of the death penalty.

"We raised about every tax there was -- alcohol, tobacco, sales, motor fuels, truck tags, corporate taxes -- and people loved all that," Charlie Reed, Graham's former chief of staff, said.

It was decided at the June 21 meeting that Graham would form a fund-raising committee, and would delay formal announcement as a candidate as long as possible.

"There's no intention of him announcing in the summer or early fall," said L. Garry Smith, who managed Graham's two gubernatorial campaigns. "As soon as you declare your intentions, the media puts you in a different category. If media coverage isn't diluted, it's at least done with a more jaundiced eye."

"The mood was very different at the June meeting," said Reed, now chancellor of the state university system. "When we went this time, he had made a decision to run. It was a work meeting, a matter of making assignments. Now it was a question of who would be responsible for what. How would we get going and let our friends know."

One-by-one assignments for the upcoming weeks were handed out.

According to Reed, Hamilton was told to do a "baseline poll" and conduct five "focus group" sessions by September. Steve Hull, Graham's press secretary, was to develop a communications strategy. Jay Hakes, Graham's staff director, was to become the liaison with special-interest groups. Thomas Herndon, who succeeded Reed as chief of staff, was to block 12 nights out of the governor's schedule by mid-September for small fund-raising dinners and meetings with friendly Republicans around the state. No One Left in Charge

The fund-raising dinners would be intimate affairs, held in the houses of supporters with from 12 to 15 guests, all of them potentially heavy contributors. Each dinner would be expected to produce 10 $1,000 checks for the campaign.

"The governor will spend three or four hours with these people. These aren't wham-bam affairs," Reed said. "It's quality time. The governor won't mention money. Garry Smith and Ronnie Book will be there for that."

Significantly, no one was left in charge. A decision on who would become campaign manager was postponed. This appeared to be more foot-dragging to some around the table.

"Everyone was left in charge," complained one Graham adviser. "Right now, it's like the communist Politburo."

But the great 1986 Florida political jousting tournament was finally under way. There were two candidates and the outlines of two campaigns.

The question was: Had Graham waited too long?

NEXT: Hawkins' traumatic start