The phone was ringing off the hook at Florida Republican headquarters in Tallahassee this week. "Everyone was wondering what was going on," state chairman Jeanie Austin said. "They were asking, 'Is Paula okay? Is she dropping out?' "

Sen. Paula Hawkins, one of the Senate's most endangered Republicans, wasn't dropping out. But suddenly -- and needlessly, many supporters said -- her health had become the biggest issue in her reelection campaign against Gov. Bob Graham (D) through inept handling of what should have been a routine hospital visit.

"It's been a bizarre and very demoralizing time for some of us," said one longtime Republican activist. "This is not a happy time at the O.K. Corral.

"She can still bounce back, but a two-sentence statement at the right time would have avoided this problem altogether," he added. "Now it will take weeks or months for her to recover."

Hawkins, complaining of severe back and neck pains from an old injury, was secretly admitted to Duke Medical Center in Durham, N.C., for tests Feb. 6 under the name "Paula Mandell."

She had left Washington the previous day, missing several appointments and a hearing by a subcommittee she chairs. Until last Saturday, aides said the senator was "on vacation," then said she was hospitalized but refused to say where until reporters found her at Duke.

Hawkins, 59, hasn't been seen in public since, but on Wednesday her doctor at Duke announced that she may require spinal surgery that could sideline her for about a month.

A decision on surgery won't be made until after further tests, but Graham's forces maintain that the incident has damaged Hawkins, whose campaign ads boast that she is "unique and irreplaceable."

"The whole series of events adds to the dark side of the word unique," said Graham pollster Bill Hamilton. "And that's been her biggest problem all along."

Hawkins, one of two women in the Senate, left the medical center today. She is scheduled to return late Monday after attending a Senate committee hearing in Fort Lauderdale that is expected to be one of the most publicized events of the campaign.

The subject of the hearing is a Florida pipeline that Hawkins has tried to transform into a major campaign issue with a $300,000 advertising blitz. But most attention is expected to focus on Hawkins herself.

"An awful lot of people will be watching to see how she looks and what she has to say," said one Florida GOP operative. "Her health has arisen as a prominent issue. She is 59 years old and has looked frail in the past."

Hawkins has long been spending 60 to 90 minutes a day in therapy for her back. A quiet undercurrent of concern began gathering last month when she filed suit against an Orlando television station alleging that her "working ability was impaired" by injuries received when a studio backdrop fell on her during an interview four years ago.

But the concern grew into what one Republican called "a dull roar" this week due to a series of conflicting reports by Hawkins' staff and at least two events over which her staff insists they had no control.

One event was a news conference scheduled by Rep. Connie Mack III (R) in Tallahassee on Wednesday, the same day Hawkins' doctor had scheduled a news conference. Contacted by a reporter, one of Mack's top aides said it was "a good bet" that the congressman planned to discuss ambitions for higher office. This fueled rumors that a deal had been arranged for Hawkins to drop out of the Senate race and be replaced by Mack.

Actually, Mack intended to discuss the federal budget -- and did. "That was a Keystone Cop thing," said Charlie Black, Hawkins' chief strategist. "His staff got a little bit cute trying to build a crowd."

The second, more puzzling event was a telephone poll apparently taken Tuesday night before the news conferences. A Clearwater, Fla., minister and his wife told the St. Petersburg Times that a person claiming to represent an independent polling firm asked if Hawkins' image would be hurt if it became known that she had been "treated for drug dependency."

The minister's wife, Suzann Herrington, said she was given a number of scenarios and asked how it would affect her opinion. One was that Hawkins' case, unlike former first lady Betty Ford's, did not also involve the use of alcohol.

"That poll was another zany thing," Black said. "It could have been a Graham poll or a media poll. I know it wasn't our poll." Graham spokesmen said the poll wasn't being taken for their campaign.

The health issue is a delicate one for both campaigns.

"We have to figure out how to take maximum political advantage of the situation without looking like we're taking advantage of a sick lady," said one Graham strategist. "They have the problem of using the natural sympathy for her, but convincing people she is healthy enough to serve in office."

"It's only a setback if her health problems worsen," Black said. "But the doctor says she is well. She could get out today and do a 12-hour day if she had to."

The issue caught both campaigns by surprise.

Meanwhile, Graham had been having problems of his own. The second-term Democrat delayed the formal announcement of his candidacy until Jan. 28. He planned a $250,000 television blitz combined with a four-day grand tour of the state, designed to produce lots of free publicity and demonstrate widespread appeal.

But the Challenger space shuttle exploded as Graham was on route to the second stop on his tour. The trip, the ads and hundreds of Graham fund-raising parties scheduled around the state were scrapped. The cancellation cost $25,000 to $30,000, weeks of work and "threw us a little off stride," said campaign manager James Eaton.

Hawkins' pipeline ads also troubled the campaign. The ads accused Graham of endangering Florida's water supply by vetoing a 1982 bill that would have stopped the conversion of a 900-mile natural gas pipeline so it could carry oil.

Environmentalists had urged the veto, and the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society publicly denounced Hawkins' commercials. "The bill was a clear attempt by the marine shipping interest to throw a roadblock against a pipeline," said Charles Lee, executive director of the Florida Audubon Society. "It wasn't an environmental issue; it was an economic one to benefit oil tankers."

Graham's campaign produced an ad contending that Hawkins made a mistake with her ads that "points to her weakness on the environment."

But the pipeline attack still bothered the governor. "I had an emotional reaction to the ads. They were a gross distortion," he said during a campaign swing this week. "I couldn't understand why she had selected this issue to hit us with and hit us first . . . . If the campaign can be won by a series of distortions, she might have a chance of winning."

Meanwhile, Hawkins' Senate subcommittee on children, family, drugs and alcoholism planned the hearing in Fort Lauderdale. The senator also scheduled a round of appearences at Lincoln Day dinners across the state.

But Hawkins' back and neck pains worsened, and on Feb. 4 she hastily decided to seek treatment at Duke, administrative assistant Thomas Kleppe said. "It was imperative because of the pain that she get help," Kleppe said, "but we weren't sure if she could get in. So there was a lot of scrambling."

Hawkins spent the night of Feb. 5 in a Durham hotel and was admitted to the Duke Medical Center the next day. Kleppe said reporters were told she had "gone on vacation" because her staff wasn't sure if she could get into the hospital or how long she would be there. He said a statement that she had been hospitalized at an undisclosed location was written Feb. 6, but not distributed until midday Feb. 7.

By the weekend, strategist Black was fielding dozens of phone calls about the senator's condition and acknowledging that she was at Duke.

"It could have been handled better. It was all done in an ad hoc basis," Black said later. "Nobody was trying to hide Paula Hawkins."