In the true spirit of political noncandidates, Democratic North Carolina Gov. James Hunt--who says he is not (yet) challenging Republican New Righter Jesse Helms for his Senate seat--came to Washington last night and raised $75,000 at a bluegrass barbecue fund-raiser.

Just in case.

A wide spectrum of powerful Democrats, including one presidential contender, two would-be first ladies, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and 2,000 others showed up to offer Hunt support and luck.

Just in case.

"It's just too early," said Hunt, greeting the winding receiving line that curled its way through the muddy back yard at the Capital Children's Museum. It was rivaled only by the beer line. "I'm going to make my decision at the end of the year."

"Did he say that?" said Hunt aide Gary Pearce. "I think he meant that he was going to announce at the end of the year. His wife must have been standing near him."

Presidential hopeful Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), who was the only Democratic presidential candidate to skip the political roast for Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) last week, glided into the Hunt party appropriately late. But right on time--at the precise moment Hunt took the microphone and the cameras focused.

Within minutes an impromptu receiving line formed for Cranston with scores of young supporters lining up to wish him luck. Like Bill Bogan, president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, a gay political organization. Bogan informed Cranston that the candidate had won the organization's straw ballot for the District with 35 percent of the vote.

"Should have been more!" said Cranston without missing a beat.

So far, the Senate race in North Carolina is more a battle of political pocketbooks than what has been billed as the second most important election in the nation for 1984.

In one corner is Helms, keeper of the conservative torch, and the $14 million-plus war chest of the Congressional Club, Helms' national fund-raising machine. On the other side is the North Carolina Campaign Fund, a considerably poorer multi-candidate PAC founded by Hunt loyalists to raise nationwide dollars to defeat Helms and "the radical right." Whoever the candidate might be. It has $1 million.

Since Helms represents everything that liberal Democrats abhor, the race is considered the cornerstone of the Democratic effort to win back the Senate in 1984. A recent North Carolina poll showed Hunt with 54 percent, Helms with 32 percent.

"It's a battle of ideologies," said Richardson Preyer, a former congressman from North Carolina and chairman of the Campaign Fund, which sponsored the party along with Democrats in the state's congressional delegation.

"Jim Hunt is everything to this country that Jesse Helms is not," said Mo Udall. "If we can't win this one, we can't win anything."

In addition to a host of congressmen, the crowd included Peatsy Hollings, wife of presidential candidate Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (S.C.), Lee Hart, wife of candidate Sen. Gary Hart (Colo.), Ohio Gov. Dick Celeste, lobbyists, lawyers and an overflow of Democratic political operatives.

They ate hundreds of pounds of barbecue and guzzled fast-flowing beer while 10 Carolinians clogged loudly on a wooden platform to bluegrass music. An unseasonably cool Washington breeze kept the crowd cheerful.

"Remember," Preyer advised his audience, "the beer gets cut off at 8:30. Make a note of this."

They did.