Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.), pale but feisty, emerged today after 10 days in the hospital to stage an important political sideshow described by aides as critical to her reelection hopes.
Technically, the event was a hearing of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee on pipeline safety. For Hawkins and almost everyone else present, the purpose was strictly political.
After days of speculation that she might drop out of her reelection race because of chronic neck and back pains, Hawkins, 59, needed to demonstrate that she is healthy enough to withstand a long, tough campaign.
She also had to give an air of official legitimacy to a $300,000 advertising attack launched by her campaign three weeks ago against Gov. Robert Graham, her opponent next fall, on an obscure gas-pipeline issue.
Hawkins, wearing more makeup than usual and occasionally rubbing her neck, left lingering questions on both counts. She said she was "in good health and good spirits" and intends to return to work in the Senate this week.
"The good news is she looks better than I've seen in a long time," said Eugene Hawkins, the senator's husband of 36 years.
The bad news was the senator's statement that "it looks like" she will need surgery to relieve chronic pains from an injury suffered four years ago when a backdrop at a television station fell on her. A final decision on an operation, which her doctor has said would sideline her for about a month, awaits further tests.
Hawkins, one of the Senate's most endangered Republicans, also had mixed results on the pipeline issue. The only other senator to attend the hearing was committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who complained bitterly about a letter from five Democratic senators and an editorial in today's Orlando Sentinel.
He said the letter, which protested the hearing's legality, was "politically motivated."
The editorial called the hearing a "shell game in center ring" and said "the two-senator circus in Fort Lauderdale -- with all its smoke, sound and fury -- won't protect Florida's water. It will foul the air." Hatch said it was "biased and unfair."
Hatch praised Hawkins as a "virtual wonder woman," and said, "I don't know a male senator who can keep up with her."
The hearing, he said, raised "some very serious issues. This wasn't a political thing."
The 900-mile Transgulf pipeline in question carries natural gas from Port Everglades near here to Baton Rouge. Over nine years, a proposal to convert it for carrying oil has survived legislative and regulatory hearings at the local, state and federal levels, two federal environmental impact studies and an unsuccessful federal lawsuit.
Hawkins, who never expressed concern about it before her campaign commercials began last month, charges that Graham endangered Florida's fragile water supply by vetoing a bill in 1982 that would have stopped the conversion.
Today, she charged that the safety measures developed by Transgulf are inadequate and pose a threat to drinking water.
Hawkins' pollster, Richard Morris, gave her questions to ask witnesses, and a camera crew hired by her campaign filmed the hearing attended by about three dozen reporters.
"I think we're going to stay on this issue," Morris said in an interview. "It's a live environmental issue that is a day-to-day concern, and Graham is on the wrong side."
Florida environmental groups have long supported the pipeline on grounds that it is a far safer way to transport oil than by tanker. Shipping interests have led the opposition.
However, Allen D. Dorris, president of the pipeline company, said the pipeline had been "subjected to more intense environmental scrutiny" than any in Florida history and, when completed next year, would be the "most modern petroleum products pipeline in the world."
Charles Lee, executive vice president of the Florida Audubon Society, which supports the conversion, said, "This is an easy issue to misrepresent because it involves complex technology and engineering decisions. Maritime interests who want to stop or delay the pipeline have become artists at misrepresenting this issue in terms that raise public fears . . . that, knowing the average Floridian's concern for the environment, are clearly easy to arouse."