Senate Democrats agreed in a lopsided vote Wednesday that, despite deep concerns about their party, they will stick with minority leader Robert C. Byrd for the next two years.
In a long-shot bid to provide the party with a ''new face,'' Sen. Lawton Chiles (D) of Florida mounted the first-ever challenge to a Senate Democratic leader. Coming on the heels of a Republican landslide in November and the election of a dynamic public spokesman, Robert Dole of Kansas, as Senate majority leader, the Chiles candidacy brought into the open private dissatisfaction among Democrats.
But when the Senate Democrats cast their secret ballots, they sided 2 to 1 with Senator Byrd, the West Virginian who is a master of legislative procedure and detail but a withdrawn and hesitant public spokesman. The tally was 32 to 10 , with 5 senators absent.
Although the win was impressive, the challenge served as a warning shot as Democrats cast about for leaders who can articulate party views not only in the Capitol, but also before television cameras.
Senator Byrd has called himself a ''behind the scenes'' worker, and his argument that the party has no need of superstars prevailed Wednesday.
The West Virginian, who became the Democrats' Senate leader in 1976 when the party was in the majority, has a long history of watching out for the personal needs of his colleagues.
Senator Chiles faced an almost impossible task in his week-old candidacy, partly because of his late announcement. Byrd had lined up commitments months earlier. But, though crushed, the Chiles challenge could open the door for another Democrat - perhaps Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, who was widely seen as a possible challenger to Byrd.
''There has been a lot of dissatisfaction,'' says a Hollings aide. But this year was not ideal for the South Carolinian, who has just come off a failed presidential campaign and must face a reelection campaign in 1986. The aide did not discount a leadership bid later.
Democrats hope to regain control of the Senate in 1986, and if they do, a much tougher leadership battle can be expected. Some senators eyeing the majority leader post may have concluded that a change now would preclude a contested race in two years.
A triumphant Byrd, who had consistently held that he was a shoo-in for reelection, called the vote one of ''confidence'' in his leadership and declined to discuss a challenge in 1986. He promised no major changes in his operation.
''When I think visibility is needed, I'll be visible,'' he said after the vote, which he said would have been 36 to 11 if proxies had been counted. He added that he would step back on some occasions and allow other Democrats to take the lead on specfic issues. With fellow Democratic leaders, he was concilatory toward the GOP, offering to be ''bipartisan where we can be.''
Senator Dole, as the new Republican leader, is a ''worthy opponent,'' said Byrd, adding that he would meet him on the floor and on television.''After all, I'm not just another pretty face,'' said the West Virginian in a rare jest with reporters.
The reelected Democratic leader has a penchant for wearing carefully tailored three-piece suits, often with a red vest, and meticulously groomed hair. His attention to personal appearance is more than matched by the care for detail that marked his climb into the leadership.
Never widely known to the public, Byrd put together the votes for approval of the treaties transferring the Panama Canal and extension of the ratification deadline for the Equal Rights Amendment.
The Democratic majority leader had a difficult adjustment to minority status after the 1980 election, in which the Republicans gained majority status in the the Senate. Talk of a challenge had persisted for years and will no doubt continue after this week.