The field of presidential contenders was diminished by two yesterday -- both former governors who challenged their parties' other candidates with their strong and controversial stands on the issues.

Former Delaware governor Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV (R) and former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt (D) announced their departures from the race after poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. They leave behind four Republicans and six Democrats as the campaign moves to the Midwest, for the South Dakota and Minnesota contests next week, then south for the cluster of primaries on March 5 and on "Super Tuesday," March 8.

Saying he was reminded of the biblical quotation that "the truth shall make you free," Babbitt told a group of cheering supporters at the National Press Club in Washington that his freedom came about "a lot sooner than I had expected."

"But although I am withdrawing from this race, I'm not withdrawing from the cause that prompted and brought me into the political arena," said Babbitt.

In a similar statement to his supporters in a downtown Wilmington hotel, du Pont said "today our campaign lowers its flag, but our crusade continues to march."

Both virtual unknowns nationally when they started campaigning almost two years ago, Babbitt and du Pont took strong, controversial stands -- some said as much to get noticed as to carry forward their political causes. Babbitt "stood up" for a tax increase, both ideologically and physically in debates and campaign appearances. Du Pont endorsed mandatory drug testing for high school students and elimination of farm subsidies.

After New Hampshire, Babbitt had four delegates, compared to front-runner Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis with 44.5. On the Republican side, du Pont had earned two, compared to 61 for Vice President Bush and 42 for Sen. Robert J. Dole (Kan.).

Although neither announced his candidacy for the next presidential race in 1992, both indicated that their political days were far from over and that this first try at the presidency had left them more experienced if the opportunity should arise again.

Du Pont, a 53-year-old former congressman, state legislator, two-term governor and great-great grandson of the founder of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., told reporters that despite this campaign and his family name, he still was not nationally known and that was to his advantage.

"I'm in a wonderful position. I'm unknown. I'm underrated, and there's nowhere to go but up," said du Pont to cheers from about 100 supporters, some wearing "Pete 1992" stickers.

When Babbitt was asked which Democrat he was going to endorse, he said he wasn't ready to choose a successor and added, "I'm going off to Elba," referring to the island where Napoleon stayed in exile before returning to rule France in 1815. "I will await the call from the mainland, lie awake at night, listening for the sound of oars in the water . . . ," he said.

Asked directly whether he will run in 1992, Babbitt said, "My options in 1992 will be supporting the incumbent Democratic president or doing something I've always wanted to do, which is run for sheriff of Coconino County."

Babbitt said that he believes his problem was that "it's asking an awful lot, in the course of a campaign before the American people, to say, 'Consider both a new messenger and a challenging and different message.' " He added later that instead of complicated answers to issue questions, a new candidate has to ask himself, "Where is my bumper sticker?"

Du Pont said he believes his issues are now being carried on by others in his party. "We have moved those challenges forward to the center of the debate; they are urgent, they are real, they will not disappear," he said.

Both candidates said they drop out without major campaign debts. Du Pont, who raised $7.5 million, had $350,000 left after New Hampshire, his press secretary told reporters.

Babbitt said that he had been told by campaign officials that his campaign debt was about $75,000.

Longtime friends of Babbitt said that he changed and matured as he weathered the campaign trail. In particular, he began to reveal what had heretofore been a well-concealed sense of humor, they said. The combination of humor, candid political statements and a low standing in the polls helped make Babbitt a favorite of the media.

Asked whether the media attention helped or hurt, a smiling Babbitt, flanked by his wife Hattie, his two children and his mentor, Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), joked, "I think you {in the media} engaged in a deliberate conspiracy to destroy my candidacy by making me into a kind of house pet and destroying my credibility in the eyes of the American people. Thanks."