Former transportation secretary Neil Goldschmidt yesterday bowed out of the contest for Democratic national chairman, leaving a group of elected officials almost empty-handed on the eve of a weekend meeting at which they hoped to announce their consensus candidate.

Goldschmidt's decision, which came after a week of intensive lobbying by a group led by Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb, Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), is expected to intensify the competition among six announced candidates to succeed Charles T. Manatt. It sent the elected officials scrambling for a fallback candidate or some other plan to save face on Sunday.

Goldschmidt, a former mayor of Portland, Ore., and now an executive with the running shoe company Nike Inc., took himself out of the contest in a phone conversation with Gephardt, citing personal and business reasons, according to Don Foley, Gephardt's press secretary.

But a former party official said Goldschmidt also wasn't convinced that the governors' group had the political muscle to guarantee his election as DNC chairman.

"He concluded that the governors' group was really a couple of guys willing to hold his jacket while he went into the ring," the former official said. "He decided they hadn't really done the necessary political work" in the states to influence the outcome.

It was not immediately clear where the officials would turn with Goldschmidt out of the picture.

One possibility is to rally behind former North Carolina governor Terry Sanford, now president of Duke University. But several Democrats predicted that Robb and the others would have trouble making Sanford the consensus candidate.

Another possibility is for the governors to seek a change in the party charter to allow a sitting elected official to be party chairman or general chairman. There were discussions a week ago with Rep. James R. Jones (D-Okla.) about this idea.

Still another idea was advanced yesterday by Paul G. Kirk Jr., who has emerged as the favorite among the six announced candidates. Kirk, who said he has support from more than 100 of the 377 DNC members, favors creating a national policy body within the DNC, composed mostly of elected officials and chaired by a former elected official.

Kirk, a former aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), suggested Utah's retiring Gov. Scott Matheson. Matheson was an early choice of the governors to become DNC chairman, but, like Goldschmidt, decided not to enter the race. He reportedly is interested in Kirk's idea.

More likely, according to one person who has been closely involved in the discussions, is that the elected officials now "will all pretty much go their own way."

That should become clearer Sunday at a scheduled meeting of elected Democrats and state party chairmen in Kansas City. Called a week ago by Robb with the express purpose of announcing a consensus candidate, the meeting now looms as the deadline for the collective involvement of the elected officials.

"They've got themselves into a box," one House member said yesterday. "They're pretty close to having to admit it can't be done."

But George Stoddart, Robb's press secretary, remained optimistic yesterday. "The process continues, and stay tuned," he said.