Washington — James B. Hunt Jr., the popular governor of North Carolina, is concerned. He is locked in a tight race for the United States Senate with Republican incumbent Jesse Helms, and even a small issue could throw the race one way or the other this fall.
So when he spoke recently with Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro of New York, chairwoman of the Democratic Party Platform Committee, she recalls, the governor had a request. Please don't put anything into the platform, he asked, that would be unpopular in North Carolina. Please avoid hot topics that would get him ''clobbered.''
Mrs. Ferraro tried to oblige. This week she floated an idea to write the platform in 1984 in a new way. It would not be ''legislatively specific.'' It would not endorse certain bills on topics like homosexual rights and abortion. It would not even mention the Equal Rights Amendment by name. It would cover certain broad themes, and attempt to avoid handing the Republicans a lot of specific issues with which the GOP could hurt Democratic candidates all over the country.
But less than one day after this trial balloon floated over Washington, it was quickly popped by some of the Democratic Party's staunchest supporters, the women's rights activists. Mrs. Ferraro had to retract her idea. ERA, it seems, will be in the platform after all.
The quick turnaround came after Mrs. Ferraro met late Wednesday with three leaders of the women's rights movement - Judy Goldsmith, president of the National Organization for Women; Eleanor Smeal, past NOW president; and Kathy Wilson, head of the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC).
''Clearly the Equal Rights Amendment will be in the platform by name,'' NOW's Judy Goldsmith said in an interview.
''(Ferraro) admitted she had made a tactical error,'' said Kathy Wilson. ''She got momentarily confused.''
The flap over ERA, however, isn't really what concerns Democratic officials. ERA has been endorsed in every Democratic platform since 1944. And Republicans have endorsed it since 1940, with the exception of 1980.
What really concerns Democrats are subjects such as abortion, homosexual rights, and immigration reform - all of them emotional topics where taking any specific stand can alienate large blocs of voters.
That's just what concerned Governor Hunt. And it will probably continue to concern his campaign, unless Democratic leaders are able to work out some kind of compromise with the many pressure groups that are trying to shape this year's platform.