The name Harry Dent just missed becoming a household word during Watergate, along wht Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Colson and the rest. Within the tight world of politics, the pros know it well. And so its owner started some buzzing in the underbrush recently when he announced his decision to renounce his past and follow the Lord, full time.

Is that the same Harry Dent who used his political cunning to help Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) slow the desegregation of schools in the South? Who, as a White House political operator, helped Richard M. Nixon build the GOP "southern strategy" to win white votes?" The same fellow Time magazine described as "the southern-fried Rasputin" in "Uncle Strom's Cabin"? The smart operator who presidential candidate John B. Connally, after Dent tried to link him with gays and blacks, dubbed "the original dirty trickster"?

"When I look back, my biggest regret now is anything I did that stood in the way of the rights of black people," Dent said one recent mroning at his law office here near the governor's mansion. "Or any people."

Busy clearing his desk, preparing to close his law practice and depart with his wife for the Holy Land to trace "the journeys of Paul," Dent, 51, was the target of a sudden parade of reporters and television camera crews, come to record the miracle.

In his sunny, air-conditioned office, he was surrounded by framed photos autographed by presidents and others he has served, and various mementos of his days in the inner circle of power. Most numerous were the images of a bird of prey, the American eagle, in the Great Seal of the United States, in various paintings, prints and statues.

In the soothing southern accents that once evangelized in smoke-filled rooms, he talked now about the sin in politics. "I always thought I knew what sin was," he said, with a reference to the whiskey-and-wild-women sort of thing. "But I have learned that the real sin is in selfishness, or pride. An politics is very selfish, very self-oriented. And I've been a part of that."

He has also discovered that, despite a lifetime of church-going, he didn't really know the Bible, he said, didn't see "the big picture" that it paints. He told the story of a day not so long ago when he was driving down the road listening to a black preacher named John Perkins on the radio.

"He pointed out that Jesus Christ was constantly talking about the less fortunate people. . . . I went back [to the Bible] and found that he was substantially correct."

Regarding some of the more notorious activites of the old Dirty Tricks Dent, such as publicizing a picture of a South Carolina political adversary shaking hands with a black man, he said, "That was a clear example of a bad motive on my part. But I've done it, because I've believed it was right."

As a lay Bible techer, he hopes especially to teach "the mullahs, shakers, and doers, such as I've been associated with, and I consider myself to have been one. . . .We think we know it all, pretty much. The little people out there can find God easier. They feel they need Him more."

The repentant new Dent has, among other things, joined the chorus of those urging Prsident Reagan not to weaken the Voting Rights Act, the landmark civil rights legislation that had as much impact in South Carolina as in any state of the union, and that Dent once worked hard to thwart. Blacks, not a significant factor in politics until the 1965 act, now cast more than one-third of the votes in some areas here.

While whites have gotten used to the act, tampering with it would unnecessarily antagonize blacks and their allies, Dent and others argue.

"I believe I've got a good relationship with black leaders in South Carolina today," he said. "A little bit of penance on my part, you might say." As for the white community, he shrugged. "Down here, we are over the desegregation problem. . . . Nobody wants any trouble. And he who stirs it up has more problems than a Harry Dent saying what I'm saying." w

Thurmond, a leading opponent of the Voting Right Act, "may not be please" with his new stand, Dent said, "but he always taught me to be independent." Thurmond declined to comment on that subject, and sent Dent best wishes in his new career: "A decision to turn down legal fees to do the work of God is a true indication of a devout and consecrated person."

As administrative assistant to Thurmond in the 1960s, as chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, and as a White House adviser to Nixon, Dent developed a reputation as a hard-nosed pragmatist, "razor sharp," as one columnist put it, and not a conservative ideologue.

In a foreword to Dent's 1978 book, The Prodigal South Returns to Power , former president Gerald R. Ford called him "one of the finest practitioners of the political arts in the country today," and credited him with a major role in bringing the South into the mainstream of national politics.

At the same time, Dent and his family have been active Southern Baptists. He helped organize the White House prayer breakfasts, at one of which Charles (Chuck) Colson, who served seven months in prison for his Watergate deeds, broke the news that he ha been born again.

Colson, who has since focused his evangelical work on the problems of prison inmates, was one of those Dent said he consulted about his recent decision.

Some who know Dent say they are not surprised to hear he has decided to become a Bible teacher. "I've seen this coming for two years or so," said Lee Atwater, 30, a political aide in the Reagan White House who described Dent, a longtime friend, as an invaluable political adviser. "His wife is a devout religious person. His children are all very devout. . . ."

Some acquaintances were skeptical. "Harry said the same thing about getting out of politics and into religion back in 1979," said one. "He ended up managing the state Bush campaign."

"I don't know what this deal is that he's on now," said Donal Fowler, a Columbia Democrat, former head of the state party organization, who has the insights of an old foe.

"He knows how to 'kill' in the political sense. He knows how to play to an audience. We've disagreed almost violently. . . . I never knew anything politically or morally reprehensible about him. But in our personal dealings, I have never known him to be as religious as this current move would sugges."

In some quartes, there are nagging suspicions that Dent is "purifying himself" for some future political candidacy, that he is still very much the crafty protege of his masterful mentor, Thurmond, 78. And the maneuvering by would-be successors to the senator, who has said he expects to retire when his term expires in 1984, is already in swing.

But more often, Dent's political colleagues express an attitude best described as indulgent, as if this capacity for "salvation" wsere a necessary self-defense mechanism, like a blood coagulant, for players in the fast lane when a blow-out occurs.

"I'm sure he really believes it himself," said one friend concerning Dent's change of careers. "He's not really a player anymore," said another. "I think he's just tired of politics."

With a mild chuckle, the boyish-faced Dent acknowledged that he had allowed himself to be "seduced" from his new path by a burning Bush in 1979, but only temporarily.

"People down here know I can't resist politics. It's a standing joke down here. . . . I don't mean to knock my old love. I won't stop being a Republican, going to dinners and all." But he insisted emphatically that he will not be active.

He specificallyd denounced the political activism of a fundamentalist preacher, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, and the Moral Majority, and agreed with the Rev. Billy Graham that their tactics are "causing a dilution of the Gospel."

And it isn't a need to cleanse himself of what he calls "the Nixon scar" that motivates him either, Dent said. His work for George Bush last year, for Ford in 1976 and a column by his friend, columnist Bill Safire, in The New York Times saying Dent was no longer "a pariah," all that, he said, was redemption enough.

The voice of the old hardball player fades almost to a whisper, and his hands shake some when he talks about his "problem," but his tone remains matter-of-fact.

He pleaded guilty in late 1974 to a misdemeanor for his part in a fund-raising operation organized by the White House in 1970 that turned out to be illegal. Though he had not knowingly violated any law, he said, he was "very much afraid" prosecutors would charge him with a felony and bring him to trial with H. R. (Bob) Haldeman if he did not plead guilty to the minor charge.

In a statement to the judge, he expressed his concern over "that bad footnote in history and the embarrassment this will cause my family and my name forever."

Things could have been worse. What saved him from "being in the middle of Watergate -- I hope I wouldn't have been there anyway, I hope I would have said no -- but from receiving the invitation into the inner sanctum of Watergate" was, he said, his "too boy-scoutish" image as a Southern Baptist prude.

Dent resisted many of the requests coming from Haldeman in those days, he said. "They weren't bad things but were sort of stuff like givin' a hotfoot here, and a hotfoot there and, you know, doin' things. What I call cute things."

Nixon's lieutenants gave the key job that might have gone to Dent instead to a young man named Jeb Magruder, and sent Dent out to make speeches all over the country and, he said, "I loved it."

Fortified with an upcoming year of study at the Columbia Bible College, he said he expects to be doing much the same thing in his new life. With most of his children grown, and money saved from businesses (now sold) and investments, he said, he has some financial cruising power.

"I'm really just starting," he said. "I've got a long way to go. I'm still Harry Dent."