One delegate wanted to know about the retired Army general whose name popped up recently as a dark horse candidate from Southside Virginia. Another, even more perplexed, asked about a state senator from Lynchburg whose name no one could pronounce.

Were they running for the U.S. Senate? Was anybody running? More to the point, who had decided NOT to run? Such was the talk Wednesday night among about 50 Northern Virginia Democrats who gathered at a house in North Arlington to plot a strategy for the party's nominating convention in Roanoke next month.

As is the case whenever Virginia Democrats meet these days, the gathering on 37th Road was marred by confusion. With the Roanoke convention only two weeks away, the party still has no declared candidate of any stature -- and even fewer "possibles" than it did a few days ago. All talk of strategy was necessarily iffy.

"They're all out there testing the waters," a rueful Arlington party chairman Sharon Davis told her delegation, fielding questions about a host of potential candidates who range from the state Senate's majority leader to a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "I guess there are a lot of wet feet out there," said Davis.

To keep up with fast-breaking developments in the party, Davis, an aide to a congressional committee, has been checking the news services several times a day. But on Wednesday, even she was caught off guard by Lt. Gov. Richard J. Davis' decision to take himself out of the running.

Earlier that day, she had confessed to a little disappointment at the way the party's nominating process was shaping up. "Its all kind of up in the air," she said. "It's a little distressing, really."

Davis' Shermanesque gesture, some Democrats hoped, would finally bring about the open, public contest they had been seeking all along. It certainly gave heart to those Arlingtonians who fervently hope that Joseph L. Fisher, their former congressman and now a member of Gov. Charles S. Robb's cabinet, will become the Senate nominee.

The proposition of a Fisher candidacy won an enthusiastic endorsement from the Arlington delegates Wednesday night -- in spite of the reluctant objections of those who argued that Fisher, 67, didn't have a prayer.

That kind of talk -- that Fisher was too liberal for Virginia, that he couldn't raise the money -- was too much for Arlington Sheriff James Gondles. "Every time, I hear all the reasons why someone shouldn't run for the Senate," said Gondles, clearly exasperated, who went on to lambaste the power of the state's powerful financial contributors.

Gondles passed along some new information to the Democrats. "Fisher told me he talked to Robb Tuesday and that Robb said Fisher would make a splendid senator -- you know Robb loves that word 'splendid,' " said Gondles.

Fisher allowed yesterday that he is giving the race "even more serious consideration" since Davis' withdrawal. Fisher confirmed Robb's encouragement but added: "But then he may say that to all the boys and girls."

The others being mentioned as possible candidates included state Sen. Hunter B. Andrews of Hampton, prosecutor Robert F. Horan of Fairfax County, Del. Norman Sisisky of Petersburg, Del. Floyd Bagley of Prince William and even Samuel V. Wilson, a former deputy director of the CIA. All want to oppose Rep. Paul S. Trible, the certain Republican nominee, for the seat being vacated by Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., an independent.

The surge for Fisher at the Arlington meeting was momentarily jarred by a sudden announcement from Peter Tsakanikas, 50, a Rosslyn entrepreneur unknown to most in the room, that he had decided to become a candidate for the Senate.

"I'd like to drop my name in the ring," said Tsakanikas, a burly man who moved to Virginia a year ago from Silver Spring. "I think it is mandatory to give consideration to an open situation."

An open situation had been the goal of party leaders several weeks ago after Owen B. Pickett, a Virginia Beach legislator, abandoned a campaign that began with the blessing of the Democratic hierarchy.

In fact it was only a month ago that Arlington Democrats, entitled to 119 of the 3,624 seats at the Roanoke convention, held a mass meeting to elect their delegates. Back then, people expected the convention to be nothing more than a coronation and only 61 people -- most of them pledged to Pickett -- bothered to pay the $13 filing fee.

If nothing else, Pickett's withdrawal generated new excitement in the race and as of midweek, Arlington had signed up 105 delegates. The only people missing are the candidates.