Harold Hughes, the popular former Democratic governor and U.S. senator from Iowa, has approved the creation of a formal campaign exploratory committee, which party officials say is an almost certain sign that Hughes is coming out of retirement to challenge Robert Ray, the popular current Republican governor of Iowa, next year; the latest Iowa Poll shows Ray leading Hughes, 52 percent to 37 percent . . . President Lane Kirkland named John Perkins, associate director of the Committee on Political Education and coordinator of the Sept. 19 Solidarity Day protest against the Reagan administration, as the AFL-CIO's chief political official, succeeding Alex Barkan, who is retiring at the end of the year.. . . Former Veterans' Administration chief Max Cleland announced yesterday he'll run for Georgia secretary of state next year. Cleland, 39, a triple amputee as the result of Vietnam war injuries who spent four years in the Georgia Senate before joining the Carter administration, is challenging incumbent David Poythress . . . . The Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader, a force in New Hampshire politics, is trying to persuade Chicago White Sox catcher Carleton Fisk to challenge Rep. Norman E. D'Amours in the Republican primary next year; Fisk, a former Boston Red Sox, lives in Raymond, N.H.