Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.), one of the Senate's most endangered Republicans, wanted to begin her 1986 reelection campaign with a day of hoopla and triumph. Careful planning had conspired to give her just what she wanted, but thanks to one article in The Miami Herald, Hawkins never got a chance to enjoy her big day.

The story appeared the day before President Reagan was to kick off her campaign at a fund-raising gala here on Memorial Day, a critical test for Hawkins that posed fundamental questions about her candidacy in a race likely to pit her against Florida Gov. Robert Graham (D) in the general election.

Could an unpredictable maverick trailing in the polls raise the millions of dollars necessary to compete with Graham? Had she patched up her differences with the Republican Party? Could Reagan transfer his popularity to Hawkins?

The May 26th newpaper report, however, dealt with something far more personal. It said Hawkins' estranged brother, Llewellen G. Fickes, 56, was jailed in Abbeville, La., awaiting trial on charges that he sexually abused three young girls.

Hawkins, whose Senate career has been built on "family" issues and who revealed last year that she had been sexually abused by a neighbor when she was 5 years old, was shaken by the newspaper's decision to publish the story. Hounded by reporters, she broke into tears during the presidential visit.

The news media had ruined her special day, complained Eugene Hawkins, the senator's husband. "It was disappointing and disconcerting, a visible setback," he said. GOP Eyes Florida Race

The choice of Hawkins' gala as Reagan's first appearance of the year on behalf of a 1986 candidate underscored the importance of the Florida race for the Republican Party. With 22 Republican seats at risk next year when a loss of just four would give Democrats control of the Senate, Hawkins' fate could be crucial for the GOP.

Florida is traditionally a Democratic state. Only three Republicans have won statewide office since Reconstruction, and Graham is a popular second-term chief executive. But Reagan won the state with big majorities in 1980 and 1984, and GOP registration has jumped from 31 percent to 37 percent of all voters in the last four years.

But is the state undergoing a long-term political realignment, as Republicans claim? Or do the registration figures simply reflect Reagan's popularity? Hawkins' race will provide an important answer to that question.

"Against another Democrat, Paula wins big. Nobody else can touch her except Graham, and he is the most popular man in the state," said Charles Black, Hawkins' chief political adviser. "They are the giants of Florida politics right now."

To overtake Graham in this big-money, big-media state, Hawkins will need $6 million or more, enough to make this one of the most expensive statewide races of 1986.

Graham, who reported a net worth of $8 million in 1984, demonstrated during his 1982 reelection campaign that he can raise big money. He spent $1.7 million.

Hawkins' political career was built on a shoestring. In 1980, when she ran for the Senate as a maverick former public service commissioner, she raised $450,000 and had no finance chairman.

"She was viewed as a consumer advocate who had taken on the establishment," said John Mica, a longtime aide. "We had very little business support, PAC political action committee support or financial support, period."

The presidential gala was Hawkins' first major test in the big money world of politics. Many thought she would fall flat on her face. Public opinion polls had shown her trailing Graham by 9 to 23 percentage points in recent months.

"People who give to political campaigns . . . like to be with a winner," one Florida Republican said. "Right now, a lot of people feel she is behind."

One of two women in the Senate, Hawkins, 58, is an intriguing and controversial political figure -- tough, combative, irreverent and often underestimated.

After a rocky beginning in which she was widely dismissed as a gum-chewing "lightweight," and Washington Monthly magazine ranked her among the 10 worst senators in 1982, Hawkins has established an odd reputation in the Senate.

She has become a national champion for several highly publicized causes, including missing and abused children, narcotics control and Radio Marti, the new anti-Castro radio station beaming programs to Cuba from Florida. But she has perplexed observers with her performance on some basic issues. At one point in May, for example, she voted on both sides of an effort to freeze Social Security benefits.

Her great strength and great weakness is her personality. She is a tenacious advocate, appealing and irrepressible. She views herself as a combination of "perfume and steel," yet many regard her as a self-promoting headline-grabber, sharp tongued and loose with facts.

"Hawkins is someone you really like or you don't. You don't fudge it with her," a Republican strategist said. "Where she has a problem is her personality. She's a very strong woman and has a tendency to shoot herself in the foot."

During her early months in Washington, for example, she served steak at a luncheon called to announce a plan to crack down on welfare cheats. In one national television appearance, she claimed that there was a gonorrhea epidemic among 2-year-olds in Miami; in another, she said 23 percent of the 580 murder victims in Dade County were slain by machine-gun fire. Both were gross exaggerations. The gonorrhea epidemic consisted of two cases; and six persons, not 133, were killed by machine-gun fire, according to The Miami Herald. Hires Political Strategist

Hawkins' reelection campaign began with a memo written last Thanksgiving by Charles Black, one of the most successful and highly paid political strategists in Washington.

He was Hawkins' chief political adviser in 1980 and has known her since his days as a University of Florida student. He and Hawkins had frequently discussed her reelection bid. "It's part of the system up here," she said in an interview in her Senate office. "Everyone starts campaigning for reelection the day after they're elected."

Black said the Thanksgiving memo laid out "basic things we ought to do," such as conducting an early poll and forming a finance committee. The memo also recommended that Hawkins:

*Start raising money. Black's goal was $2 million by the end of 1985.

*Mend fences with the Florida Republican Party.

After gaining statewide attention as "a fighting housewife from Maitland" during her days as a consumer advocate on the Public Service Commission, she angered many party regulars in 1984 with an unsuccessful effort to elect a longtime friend as state GOP chairman. "She antagonized a lot of people unnecessarily," one Republican leader here said. "If you're going to get involved in something like that, you better win."

*Request an early Reagan visit. Black had already begun lobbying for a trip. "I emphasized its importance to everyone and his brother," he said. "Not only is it one of the most competitive races, but it is a big, expensive state to campaign in, and she needed the money, almost more than anyone else."

Hawkins read the memo and scribbled on it, "Yes, go ahead," Black recalled.

The second campaign-team member was pollster Richard Morris, who worked in her 1980 campaign. He and Black make a political odd couple.

Black, 36, is a slow-speaking southerner, conservative in dress, manner and politics and has been a key strategist for the Republican National Committee, Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Hawkins and many other Republican officeholders.

Morris is a flashy, fast-talking New Yorker, a Democrat, whose former clients include Texas Gov. Mark W. White Jr., and Mississippi Gov. William A. Allain, both Democrats, and Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.).

Black hired Direct Mail System Inc., a Tallahassee firm, to handle direct-mail fund-raising in January but left the decision on the most important member of the team -- the media adviser -- to Hawkins.

Television plays an inordinately important role in the politics of Florida, a place of many rootless people and few effective political institutions. One-third of the population has moved into the state since Hawkins' election to the Senate.

"For a lot of people, there are only three realities in Florida -- the sun, the beach and TV," said one media adviser who bid for the Hawkins account.

Hawkins was deluged with people who wanted to make her television commercials. With tens of thousands of dollars in ad-placement fees at stake, hers would be one of the season's most lucrative political contracts.

"It isn't because of Paula Hawkins that these people want to do my campaign," Hawkins said. "I know they say, 'It's a good account, if she'll listen to you.' "

Her final choice was between two of the biggest names in the political advertising business: Roger Ailes, who gained notoriety as a central character in "The Selling of a President," a book about Richard M. Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign; and Robert Goodman, whose Baltimore agency has produced ads for Vice President Bush and several senators.

Hawkins picked Goodman, known in the industry for his "Mr. Feelgood" approach.

Hawkins said she had an instinctive liking for Goodman. She recalled first seeing his ads during a seminar in 1976. "They made me so happy that I was in politics. They had horses and beaches and color and a ballad. I just feel good after I see a Goodman commercial," she said. "You feel good in a meeting with him." Presidential Visit Ill-timed

During a reception in early April, Hawkins learned that President Reagan would come to Florida May 27. The timing was terrible. May 27 was Memorial Day, better suited for barbecues than fund-raisers.

Hawkins cancelled a trip abroad that she and her husband, the president of a small Orlando firm, were to make with Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and his wife, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole.

"I spent the next 10 days on the phone," she said. "I figured we could make $1 million if it wasn't a holiday."

She turned for help to yet another political pro, Bradley S. O'Leary.

O'Leary has developed an unusual specialty during his 25 years in professional politics. He stages major fund-raising dinners around such luminaries as Reagan, former president Gerald R. Ford, Vice President Bush, John Connally and Henry A. Kissinger.

O'Leary dispatched two of his staff members to Miami. They rented a 1,400-seat ballroom at the Omni Hotel, planned security arrangements with the Secret Service, drew up a menu ("The food at political fund-raisers should be just good enough so people don't complain too long," O'Leary said), bought $2,000 worth of red, white and blue balloons and mailed 89,000 invitations for a "major speech" by Reagan during a "surprise visit to Florida."

Other potential contributors were contacted personally by dinner cochairmen, each of whom had agreed to sell 10 tickets at $200, $400 or $1,000 apiece. The sliding scale for tickets was O'Leary's innovation, designed to pack the house and bring in big bucks.

He also offered a come-on for those unable to afford dinner tickets. For a $50 contribution, their names would be published in an official "commemorative Presidential Program" along with bigger donors.

"People like to have their names listed up there with all the movers and shakers in the community," said O'Leary, whose firm received $15,000 in consulting fees for the gala.

The event was a sellout. Cuban-Americans bought $125,000 worth of tickets in gratitude for Hawkins' support of Radio Marti and other issues, O'Leary said.

Receipts totaled $925,000, making it the biggest political fund-raising event in Florida history. Combined with the $750,000 she had raised at smaller events, Hawkins was building a sizable war chest.

The senator was ecstatic as she awaited Memorial Day. In one well-orchestrated move, she had confounded critics who expressed doubt that she could play big-money politics.

Graham was on the defensive. The governor had sat for months on his opinion polls, refusing to officially announce his candidacy. He had yet to raise a single dollar. The pressure was on him. Bad-News Phone Call

The bad-news call came to the Hawkins' home in Winter Park, Fla., from Henry Hicks, the senator's press secretary, late on Saturday, May 25. Hicks had just read the embarrassing story about the senator's brother in the first edition of the Sunday Herald.

Hawkins was outraged. A Herald reporter had approached her about a story on the brother in February, although executive editor Heath Meriwether later wrote that the newspaper had not learned of the child-abuse charges until five days before publishing the story.

Eugene Hawkins advised his wife not to comment on the story, but she could not contain her anger. Questioned by reporters, she lashed out at the newspaper, accusing it of timing the story to embarrass her during Reagan's visit.

"I know they held the story," she said. "I don't know how long -- months."

Graham aides said later that Hawkins damaged herself by overreacting to the story. But Hawkins' supporters disagreed, and there was no clear evidence that the episode hurt her campaign.

"That story backfired on The Herald," said Jorge Mas, a well-known Cuban-American leader. "Her biggest problem is the press. That story was a very low blow. Everyone sympathized with her. You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your relatives."

NEXT: Florida, a political enigma.