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Florida contest typifies fight for US Senate control. Reagan has big stake in such races as Graham vs. Hawkins

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A White House official puts the matter bluntly: ``The American people are going to judge the political success of the Reagan presidency on this year's Senate elections.''

Sen. Paul Laxalt (R) of Nevada, President Reagan's closest friend on Capitol Hill, describes the stakes even more starkly. If the Republicans lose control of the United States Senate in November, he says, Mr. Reagan will face ``two years of purgatory'' in Congress.

The 1986 Senate races -- spanning 34 states -- have emerged as Ronald Reagan's ultimate battle for political power and prestige in Washington. This will be the last time that he, as a sitting president, can demonstrate his immense appeal and ensure his place as one of the century's most popular presidents.

One White House adviser says a Republican victory in November will ensure the party's power in Washington far into the 1990s. But he warns that a loss of the Senate this year could begin a downward spiral that could cost the GOP the White House in 1988.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But the high stakes attached by the White House to the 1986 Senate races have escalated interest nationwide, especially in about a dozen closely fought contests.

One of the most pivotal races is being fought here in Florida. The contest here, which will cost millions of dollars on both sides, reflects all the high hopes and all the agonizing frustrations now being felt by top-level White House strategists.

Sen. Paula Hawkins, a freshman Republican who rode into office on Reagan's presidential coattails in 1980, is a heavy underdog in her bid for reelection. Her problems are manifold.

She is being challenged by the most popular politician in Florida, Democratic Gov. Bob Graham, who boasts a public approval rating of more than 80 percent. Mrs. Hawkins has trailed by as much as 22 points in the polls, a situation that has made it harder for her to raise funds. Her opponent has a huge campaign war chest, as well as a personal fortune that he could pour into the fray at the last moment.

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