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Wanted: 'star quality' candidates

At a huge, Texas-size barbeque near Fort Worth, the crowd piled plates with fried okra and spicy beef and talked about the favorite political topic here: recapturing a United States Senate seat for the Democrats.

In most other states, interest in the Senate races is so low that all too often the party can't coax even sure-fire winners into the campaign. But not so in Texas.

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''My phone has rung off the hook'' ever since the Republican Sen. John Tower sprang his retirement announcement, says Elden Sheffield of Fort Worth, a justice of the peace attending the barbeque.

The calls come from Democrats combing their party's grass roots for supporters. At least five have already entered the race or are sizing up their prospects in what the Fort Worth Star-Telegram labeled a ''wild scramble'' for the Senate seat.

Within hours of the Tower announcement last week, two GOP candidates had jumped into the race. Two more appear close behind.

The candidate supply doesn't touch the special election of 1961, when Mr. Tower first won his seat over no fewer than 71, all Democrats. But compared with other states, Texas still has an abundance of willing contestants.

''This is a political state,'' says George W. Strake, state Republican chairman, adding that the ''senator from Texas usually has pretty much clout up there'' in Washington.

While the GOP chairman concedes that ''it's never a boost to lose an incumbent,'' he says the blow has been softened by the ''stable of candidates'' ready to take Tower's place. They include Rep. Phil Gramm, a one-time Democrat whose support for President Reagan led him to national prominence and recently into the Republican party.

But Texas is almost alone with its crowded Senate race. As the 1984 campaigns begin to take shape, the problem for both parties, and particularly for the GOP, is finding well-known leaders who want to run.

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So far the GOP has produced only four identified candidates to challenge Democratic incumbents. Each faces an uphill battle, as even Republican officials concede.

Meanwhile, their ''star quality'' candidates are refusing to run. When Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee said he would not seek reelection, he seemed to set a tone. Gov. Lamar Alexander, whose popularity would have made him a good bet for the Baker seat, had no interest.

Nor could the GOP urge Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV into the race against Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Delaware.

So while the GOP lists a handful of Democrats as having ''thin'' support, they have no strong opponents yet to take advantage. ''You can't beat somebody with nobody,'' says Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

The loss of both majority leader Baker and Armed Services Committee chairman Tower ''makes it harder to recruit candidates for the GOP,'' said Brian J. Atwood, director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in an interview last week in Washington.

The question left hanging is, ''Why are these people quiting?'' said Mr. Atwood, adding that the impression left is ''the Senate can't be that important to the Republican party if they [the two leaders] are quitting.''

His GOP counterpart denied the problem is confined to his party. ''That transcends party lines,'' said Mr. Daniels. The problem is that ''the Senate is not a very interesting place. It's more difficult, less courteous than it used to be. Campaigning is different - it's an exhaustive two years. There's the issue of compensation, time demands, the pace.''

Democrats have had some trouble luring governors out of state houses to seek a seat in the Senate. But overall, they are having considerably more success recruiting candidates. With 19 GOP seats to shoot for, the Democrats have lined up candidates in seven.

Probably the most closely watched race is in North Carolina, where Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. is challenging conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R). Although Mr. Hunt has not formally announced his intentions, money is pouring in from around the country to both sides in a race that is almost certain to break spending records.

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