Former President Ford returned to Washington yesterday for a few good-natured jabs at his successor and an errant reference to the "mess in Washington" that seemed to include his own administration.

"I think the public is beginning to see that all the mess in Washington hasn't gotten any better and in some respects it may have deteriorated," Ford said after a meeting with GOP leaders in the office of House Minority Leader John J. Rhodes (D-Ariz.).

Later, in a speech prepared for delivery to a $1,000-a-plate GP fund-raising dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel , the former President mixed humor with serious criticism that stopped far short of a broadside attack on the Carter administration.

Observing that he had traveled to 13 states since he left office, Ford said: "I'm not running for anything, but old habits are hard to break. Besides, I figured if Jimmy Carter was still campaigning six months after the election, why shouldn't I?"

Ford said he had determined that Carter is indeed a Demorcrat "even if (House Speaker) Tip O'Neill and (AFL-CIO President) George Meany aren't so sure."

The former President said that liberal Democrats are "ill at ease" with Carter's policies because they seemed close to Republican doctrines.

"It is no accident that the new administration seems to be emulating so many of our policies," Ford said. "They know as well as we do that one out of every two voters last year supported our clearly defined policies of fiscal restraint, lower taxes and limited government."

But Ford also criticized Carter's econmic and energy policies. And he attacked the President's proposal for election-day registration, which Ford referred to as "curbside registration."

Ford took note of and dismissed criticism made of him by Vice President Mondale after earlier criticism of Carter's economic policies.

"I realize I am treading on dangerous ground tonight, because I have been told that former Presidents should be seen and not heard," Ford said. "But the quiet role of the 'elder statesman' holds little appeal for me . . . I believe I have the right and the obligation to speak out in the national interest.I am not ready for the rocking chair, and I will not wear a muzzle."

Despites this declaration, Ford carefully restrained the extent of his criticism and said he would continue to do so, especially in the areas of foreign policy. He told reporters he was concerned about being "labeled as a Republican partime because some of the problems are so dangerous, some of the difficulties are so critical, I do not believe I should become a total partisan under these circumstances.

Carter had invited Ford to meet with him for a half hour in the White House today. The two men held a similar private meeting when Ford visited Washington in March.

Yesterday's visit to Washington was a sentimental one for Ford, who was given a standing ovation when he spoke to former members of Congress at a luncheon and was cheered by small crowds that gathered on the street.

Ford also met with former members of his Cabinet at the American Enterprise Institute, where the former President has a small office. He spent the night at the transition office at 734 Jackson Pl. NW, a block from the White House.