What were the Democratic candidates trying to do in debating foreign policy at the STARPAC, Democratic Leadership Council and Democratic National Committee forums on Sept. 27 in dovish Des Moines, Oct. 5 in hawkish Miami and Oct. 7 at the Kennedy Center? And how well did they do it? Take each in turn.

Albert Gore. Gore wanted to set himself apart from the rest of the pack, and he did. Gore attacked the others for not supporting humanitarian aid to the contras, for not favoring missile flight testing (though Bruce Babbitt does), for not backing the U.S. presence in Persian Gulf. He accused the other Democrats of meeting litmus tests set by small peace groups and of learning the wrong lesson -- that the United States must intervene nowhere -- from Vietnam. Dick Gephardt objected that the differences Gore was pointing to were marginal: that Gore opposes the administration's $270 million contra aid and favors only a $3 million stopgap bill. But the rhetorical difference was clear and suggests they'd be different kinds of presidents. Gore, who has not caught fire in Iowa or New Hampshire, is trying to buy himself a ticket to Super Tuesday. His stance can win votes in the South and in big industrial states, he will argue, and he should be allowed to test them there.

Dick Gephardt. Gephardt tries instinctively to be the conciliator, the forger of united party policy, as he is in the House. You were with us on contra aid, he chided Gore, we were together on the Midgetman, you voted for the freeze: our differences are only marginal. Democrats shouldn't talk like Jeane Kirkpatrick, he says; Gore's campaign manager replies, "Party unity and polite debate are the last refuge of candidates without a message." Gephardt wants to emphasize both that he opposes contra aid and the administration bargaining strategy on arms control and that he favors a strong defense: politically he is trying to pirouette between dovish Iowa where he is strong and the Super Tuesday South, where he hopes to demolish Michael Dukakis, whom he attacked for opposing the Midgetman. But he made it more difficult for voters to understand his support-some-of-this, oppose-some-of-that policy when he made the startling proposal of U.S. military aid to the African National Congress in a revolutionary war in South Africa.

Bruce Babbitt. In almost every response Babbitt shows that he has easily the most original mind of the candidates -- though his opponents might call it quirky. He calls for U.S. diplomatic liaison with South African rebels (but questions the standard liberal prediction that revolution is imminent there), he wants to change NATO conventional war strategy to "no first use" of tactical nuclear weapons, he is willing to give President Reagan credit for the INF treaty and (like Gore and unlike Jackson and Dukakis) defends the Grenada invasion. Babbitt strikes the most optimistic note of the candidates, one that probably rings truer for most Americans than the Democrats' usual out-party lugubriousness, when he argues that America and democracy are winning around the world, that Marxism is dying, that exciting progress is ahead. But Babbitt is not readily placeable on a one-dimensional ideological spectrum, which may make it hard for him to attract a large enough constituency in Iowa to get him a ticket to New Hampshire.

Paul Simon. To STARPAC Simon was preaching to the choir, talking about arms control and urging more international exchange programs to bring ordinary Americans and Russians together and build internaitonal understanding. In Miami and Washington, he responded to the DLC's emphasis on American strength and to Gore's polarizing tactics with asperity, saying Gore was accusing his opponents of "the politics of retreat, complacency and doubt." Simon, like Gephardt, wants to avoid controversy among Democrats. His strategy is to portray himself -- his issue stands and his bow ties -- as unfashionable, which may just make them fashionable in contrarious Iowa. Like Gephardt, he has an odd-duck proposal: to take covert activity away from CIA and give it to the military and the FBI -- the opposite of the decision made in 1947 by the Harry Truman whose memory Simon invokes.

Michael Dukakis. In Des Moines, Dukakis was considered by many the leading candidate; in Miami, after his campaign manager stepped down, he started gamely but after a testy exchange with Al Gore on Grenada visibly slowed down. Dukakis articulate his attitudes with television crispness, but sometimes finds it hard to reach a decision. Alluding to human rights violations (but not to recent progress on democratization), he has hinted that "in the long run" it might do to move U. S. troops out of South Korea. In Miami he criticized the invasion of Grenada but then said he didn't have enough information (after four years and lots of documentation) to judge whether it was right. But Dukakis persist in Wilsonian themes, favoring multilateral action, calling in the United Nations, denouncing contra aid as a violation of law. This rings true, coming from a reform politician who helped change Massachusetts from one of the nation's most corrupt states to one of its cleaner ones. But the U.N. is hardly an asset. Gephardt, no doubt with a view to pro-Israel contributors, took care to attack Dukakis for elevating an organization that recognizes the PLO.

Jesse Jackson. Jackson's moments of greatest fervor come when he denounces the United States, especially on Grenada and Nicaragua and South Africa. He denounced the Midgetman and Stealth bombers, favored by the others except Dukakis, as well as Star Wars and contra aid, which they all oppose. "We must break the back of the arms race," he said indulging as all the candidates did in the assumption that a U.S. policy declaration or a House resolution can change people's lives in far corners of the world.

The debates on foreign policy have helped to tease out the candidates' differences on issues, spotlighting their emphases and concerns. In 1984 Democratic debates focused on arms control and got the candidates fighting to see who favored it most. The DLC, by raising the issue of American strength and raising the specter of its leaders Sam Nunn and Charles Robb (absent from Miami), has moved most of the Democrats away from their boilerplate denunciations of Ronald Reagan, which always play well to peace groups in the North, and has made it impossible to arrange all the candidates on a single ideological spectrum. Gore has made the headlines, but all six candidates have provided useful information on which voters can make intelligent judgments. Will the Republicans do the same, when they finally meet for the first of their debates Oct. 28?

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.