HOWARD BAKER has had pretty awful luck in his runs for, or at least toward, his party's nomination for national office. The Senate minority leader took a mean and unwarranted roughing up over the vice presidential nomination in 1976, and this year his campaign for the presidency went, industriously, nowhere. It isn't necessary to have been a supporter of Sen. Baker for president this time or vice president last, to observe that he did manage from time to time to bring an unaccustomed element of normality to the proceedings. He even seemed very often, on the stage, like a person. We are not suggesting that this is what did him in -- only that it is an attrtibute in rather short supply among the surviving contenders and that Mr. Baker, departing, leaves with his dignity and reputation intact, whatever bruises he may have sustained to his pride.

By one long-shot theory, he could actually come out of it better off than most of those still in contention for the Republican presidential nomination. Only one of them will get it, and that one may not win. Sen. Baker, on the other hand, stands a chance -- at least in theory and conceivably in practice if Democrats sink to disaster -- of becoming Senate majority leader. Of the 34 Senate seats to be filled in 1980, Democrats now hold 24, and the Republicans are now talking about the possibility of taking control of the Senate for the first time since 1953.

The giddy thoughts require contemplation. With Jesse Helms as chairman of the Agriculture Committee, Jake Garn in charge of Urban Affairs, John Tower in charge of Armed Services and Strom Thurmond in charge of Judiciary, it would be, you will have to admit, well, different. This is the Senate over which Mr. Baker would preside as majority leader. We aren't betting on it, just alerting you to the distant possibility that getting out of the presidential race could turn out to have been, for Howard Baker, the opposite of early retirement.