The party regulars went wild over the petite senator with the neck brace. They cheered almost every sentence she spoke. They reached out to touch her. They chanted, "Paula, Paula. Paula."

"Paula is back," Republicans told one another over and over at a state party convention here this weekend. "Don't count Paula out."

Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.), recuperating from major back surgery two months ago, was so overwhelmed MEGAPOLITICS THE 1986 FLORIDA SENATE RACE that she stopped midway through one speech, choking back tears. The crowd of 1,500 rose in a thundering standing ovation.

Unable to continue, Hawkins, one of the most endangered Senate Republicans, blurted, "They not only fixed my neck and back. They gave me another million miles."

It was Hawkins' first major political appearance since she decided to undergo surgery in the middle of her campaign against Democratic Gov. Bob Graham.

Gene Hawkins, the senator's husband, could hardly be more pleased. "There were some deep, dark days," he said. "There was uncertainty, deep uncertainty, about the surgery and her recovery."

Some doctors, he said, had advised against an operation to relieve chronic pain from a neck and back injury she suffered four years ago when a television studio backdrop fell on her.

The surgery was a political gamble. "I was worried about her not being visible for eight to 10 weeks," said Charles Black, the senator's chief political adviser. "The surgery meant Graham had the whole field to himself all spring. We didn't know what would happen."

But the results of a poll that the Hawkins campaign completed last week and the reception she received here Friday and Saturday put those concerns aside -- at least temporarily.

The poll, Black said, showed Hawkins trailing Graham by 4 percent. "We're about at the same place we were before she went into the hospital. It's like the race has been on hold a couple months."

In an interview at her home on picturesque Lake Maitland in nearby Winter Park, Hawkins said her surgery may turn out to be a political plus.

"It's an advantage. People relate to pain. It is not a pain-free world," she said. "People sympathize with you. Everybody has back trouble. They come up to me and say, 'You're a brave lady to do what you did.' "

Hawkins, 59, "isn't up to 100 percent yet," her press secretary, Bill Hart, tells reporters several times every day. Her doctors have told her that she may not be at that point for two months.

She wears a specially designed neck brace to prevent her from turning her head or looking down. At home and in her office, she rests her right arm in a sling. There is a fragile, tentative look to her walk.

The big question about her recovery: Can she balance the conflicting demands of being a senator, a candidate and a recuperating patient at the same time?

This is no easy order. Hawkins is a Type A personality, a driven workaholic full of nervous energy. "She is the kind of person who has to be doing something all the time," said her oldest daughter, Genean McKinnon. "As long as I've known her, the woman has never sat through an entire 30-minute television show."

After surgery April 8 and 21 on her neck, right shoulder and lower back, Hawkins returned to her $800,000 Winter Park home from the Duke University Medical Center to recuperate for almost a month.

The instructions doctors gave to her nurse occupy a full legal-size page. They are taped to her refrigerator door. "No turning, shaking or any sudden movement of the head. Blood pressure and heart rate to be checked," the list says. "Encourage rest. Keep environment quiet. Limit visitors. Limit phone calls. Encourage relaxing activity, like sunbathing."

"It drove me nuts," Hawkins said. But by the time she returned to the Senate June 3, she told reporters, "I feel better than I have since 1982."

She said she is supposed to walk at least a mile a day, spend an hour exercising in her patio pool at home or in the Senate pool in Washington, work no more than eight hours a day and sleep no less than eight hours.

"It has been very, very difficult for her," said her husband, president of a small Orlando firm that sells electronic equipment to manufacturers. "Sometimes you almost have to sit on her to keep her quiet."

During the last year, he said, there were times he felt she should abandon her reelection campaign. "The pain was getting unbearable. We just didn't want to see her suffer," he said.

At times, his wife was unable to shake hands or lift a telephone receiver to her ear. Severe headaches developed when she rode in small aircraft. He worried about the medication doctors prescribed.

A Mormon who doesn't drink or smoke, he said he was relieved when doctors at Duke ordered his wife to stop taking painkillers. "They said it was clear she wasn't addicted to anything," he added.

McKinnon said her mother "has known since the day she was elected in 1980 who her opponent would be this year." When Graham was first elected governor in 1978, Hawkins ran for lieutenant governor on the opposing GOP ticket.

She has been itching "to go head-to-head" against Graham ever since, said McKinnon, who managed her mother's campaign until February. "She just wants her own shot at him."

In a year when the net loss of four GOP seats would give Democrats control of the Senate, the contest between Florida's two most popular figures has taken on national significance. Some had predicted it would become "the Helms-Hunt race of '86," a reference to the long, bitter 1984 battle between Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and his challenger, then-Gov. James B. Hunt Jr.

When Hawkins went into the hospital March 31, the race still had that potential. It no longer does. At that point, the two sides had raised a total of $5.5 million, compared to the $22 million spent on the Helms-Hunt race. They also had engaged in one exchange of bitter attacks in television ads.

But there were troubling signs in the Hawkins camp as the senator entered the hospital. She had a raised an impressive $3.3 million, but had only $532,284 left on March 31, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Graham had raised $2.2 million, but had $1.2 million on hand.

More important, the $1.2 million spent by Hawkins on television commercials had done little to damage the governor's popularity. Four polls by news organizations in March showed him leading Hawkins by margins from 6 percent to 25 percent. Graham's polling firm, Hamilton & Staff, said he had a 17 percent lead. Hawkins' pollster, Dick Morris, said Graham had a 4 percent lead.

During her weeks recuperating, Hawkins said she kept in regular contact with her Senate staff, and Thomas Kleepe, her top aide, visited her for a briefing almost weekly.

Every day she was absent, a Senate colleague inserted a statement on drug abuse, one of her pet issues, in the Congressional Record in her name. A steady stream of letters and news releases flowed from her Senate office.

"We made an effort to show this Senate office kept working without her," said press secretary Hart. "There were some issues that we just put out press releases in her name."

But Hawkins insists that she had almost no contact with her campaign advisers or staff for weeks. "If they're doing their job, they don't need me," she said.

The first sign of trouble came in a fund-raising appeal mailed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The appeal included a memo labeled "Confidential" from Hawkins political adviser Black, which said, "We must raise $945,000 by June 20 or we will lose this race."

"Clearly, if we don't respond in force to this crisis right away, there is no way we'll save Senator Hawkins' seat," wrote NRSC executive director Tommy Griscom in an accompanying letter.

Black and Griscom later described the letter as a mere fund-raising ploy, written in the doomsday style common to such appeals. The letter has raised $80,000 to date. Another recent letter signed by President Reagan has raised $50,000, according to Hawkins campaign manager Phil Douglas.

But Hawkins' money problems are real. "The hospital cost me $1 million in the bank," the senator said. "We had to reschedule 36 fund-raisers."

The GOP convention this weekend was the largest statewide gathering of Republicans since 1979. It couldn't have come at a better time for Hawkins.

She had been back on the job less than two weeks. She had visited Miami, Jacksonville and Tallahassee during that time, but few party regulars had seen her and stories were appearing in the press about events she had missed in Washington.

Although she is Florida's only Republican elected statewide, Hawkins is a maverick, and her relationship with Florida GOP officials has at times been strained.

The convention, however, was a virtual Hawkins pep rally. She gave two fiery speeches, repeatedly linking her reelection to continued Republican control of the Senate.

"Ronald Reagan will not be a lame duck if he doesn't keep the Republican Senate," she said. "He will be a dead duck."

The crowd cheered. But people seemed far more interested in how Hawkins looked than in what she said.

She passed the sight test with flying colors. "She looked the best I've seen her in a long, long time," said Barbara Peters of Orlando. "This is a real comeback for her. She really has been through a lot of pain. I choked up when I saw her up there."