Never let it be said that Jimmy Carter cannot draw a crowd.

No fewer than eight Republican presidential hopefuls -- all of them following the early-strating strategy that Carter used in winning the 1976 Democratic nomination -- will be jamming the capital this week when the president delivers his State of the Union address.

Ronald Reagan, who leads the early polls as the Repulibcan voters' choice to oppose Carter in 1980, will have an intimate dinner with a group of Republican senators in a Capitol dining room just before Carter's Tuesday evening address to the joint session of Congress.

Wednesday at noon, John B. Connally goes before the National Press Club to make what is expected to be his formal announcement of candidacy.

On Thursday afternoon, George Bush, Houston's other White House hopeful, will unburden himself of his views of the world in a speech at Georgetown University.

All three of those worthies will spend time seeking support from congressional Republicans, who can count at least five of their own number as eager to run: Sens. Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, Bob Dole of Kansas, and Lowell P. Weicker Jr., of Connecticut, and Reps. John B. Anderson and Philip M. Crane, both of Illinois.

And none of the eight will neglect the party leaders drawn to Washington for three days of meetings of the Republican National Committee, which is to decide Tuesday where to hold the convention that will end the race for at least seven of these eight contenders.

As the first lap in the 18-month nominating mariathon begins, the polls say two things: Reagan, the 67-year-old former California governor, is far ahead of any of the other active Republican aspirants.

And neither Reagan nor any other Republican is close to beating Carter at this point.

A Gallup Poll released today shows that Carter has a 57-to-35 percent lead over Reagan. The survey, taken in December, indicates a steadily widening margin for the incumbent over the California. Last spring, Carter enjoyed a 51-to-45 percent lead, and in July it was 52-to-43 percent.

The same survey shows that Carter has widened his lead over former president Gerald R. Ford to a 53-to-39 percent advantage. That is his biggest margin over his 1976 rival in the past year.

But Ford, at this point, appears to be taking a relaxed attitude toward a 1980 race, saying he has not made up his mind. With eight others moving toward the early primaries and Ford saying he will not be in the race or endorsing anyone else when New Hampshire votes 13 months from now, the former president is fading as a factor -- at least in the early going.

Ford was runner-up to Reagan in a Gallup Poll earlier this month on the nomination preferences of both Republicans and independents. But he is unlikely to maintain that position, most observers believe, if the public concludes that he will not be an active contender.

There are two reasons the Republican race has started so early. One is Carter. The example he set four years ago by declaring his candidacy almost two years in advance of election day, and campaigning at breakneck speed for over a year in the states with early delegate contests, has convinced his GOP rivals that this is the way to go.

Crane, who became the first declared candidate last August, adapts the adage of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate cavalry general: "You get there fustest with the mostest, and you get the commitments."

But Crane, like the other contenders, is scrambling early because of a second factor -- the clear need to keep Reagan from locking up the nomination by default.

The California, who came within an ace of stripping the nomination from Ford in 1976, has a huge head start on the field in both popularity and organization.

The Gallup Poll this month showed Regan the choice of 40 percent of the GOP voters, compared with 24 percent for Ford, 9 percent for Baker and 6 percent for Connally.

Two Illinoisians who are not making any moves to launch candidacies -- Sen. Charles H. Percy and Gov. Jim Thompson -- had 4 percent and 3 percent, respectively.

The others -- Anderson, Bush, Crane and Dole -- were among those at 1 percent, and Weicker did not even get a call from Gallup.

Reagan's strength represents, in part, a big advantage in visibility. He is known to 95 out of every 100 Republicans, more than anyone except Ford. Connally, Dole and Baker have strong recognition factors, but the others -- including active candidate Crane -- are known only to a small fragment of the electorate at this time.

Reagan also has the advantage of the most extensive intraparty organizational network, built on the loyalty of his 1976 supporters and maintained for the past two years by his interim political organization, Citizens for the Republic, one of the biggest spending political action committees in the 1978 campaign.

Reagan is moving to consolidate his early strength in ways that might eliminate some of his challengers even before the first primary. And he is trying to reposition himself, not as the factional favorite of GOP conservatives but as the "natural standardbearer" for Republicans of all stripes.

For most of the next three days, he will be meeting individually and in small groups with Republican senators and representatives, using offices in the Capitol furnished by the GOP congressional leaders.

"We start out," said one of his strategists, "from the standpoint that he's the front-runner and he's going to win unless fate intervenes."

Sen. Paul D. Laxalt (R-ev.), who is setting up the Senate meetings, says moderates have been invited, not in hopes of procuring immediate endorsements, but to let them know the door is open "whenever they want to come aboard."

A spot-check of progressive GOP senators' offices indicated most of them will accept -- if only because of curiosity about Reagan's plans and respect for Laxalt, who headed Reagan's campaign in 1976 and will likely have that title again in 1980.

What these senators are expected to hear is that Laxalt will announce the formation of the Reagan "exploratory committee" next month, which will aim at raising at least $5 million in campaign funds and setting up campaign committees in all 50 states.

While the Citizens for the Repulic network represents an obvious starting point for that drive, Reagan aides emphasize their desire to involve moderates and 1976 Ford backers from the beginning of their campaign.

The move to the middle is not without risks. Such staunch conservatives as Tom Ellis, the leader of Reagan's 1976 campaign organization in North Carolina, says he wonders if Reagan is "still a true conservative."

But Laxalt says Ellis' political partner, Sen. Jesse A Helms (R-N.C.), will be meeting with Reagan this week and claims, "We have not had one single major defection from our 1976 organization -- not one."

Officials indicate that Reagan is likely to delay a formal announcement of candidacy until later this year, in part to preserve the newspaper column and radio broadcasts from which he derives much of his income, and in part to cut back the risks of over exposure that always threatens the leading candidate.

Once he announces, however, Reagan is expected to conduct a vigorous campaign, combining personal appearances and television programs, starting in New Hampshire.

Because Reagan will be 69 in 1980, his strategists assume he will have to show enough vitality as a campaigner to bury the "age issue." That probably means running in most, if not all, the primaries.

"I think he has to demonstrate, particularly on the age issue, that he's able to run," Laxalt said. "I don't think he'll have any difficulty doing so."

Working with him will be most of the key leaders of his 1976 campaign, including Washington-based political consultants John P. Sears, Jim Lake and Charles Black, who is leaving as executive director of the Republican National Committee, and the California team of Lyn Nofziger, Michael Deaver, Peter Hannaford and pollster Richard Wirthlin.

The threat to Reagan is a misstep or blunder that might cost him victory in one of the early primaries. As the manager of one of his rivals says, "If he wins the first seven primaries, he's the nominee. But if he loses one of them, it doesn't matter who beats him it's a new ball game for all of us."

With that in mind, here is how the opposition to Reagan lines up at this point:

ANDERSON -- The Rockford congressman, 56, one of the leaders of the GOP progressive wing, has had a hard time with the exploratory effort he began last summer. A hometown businessman collected $150,000 in funds last year, but the checks have been returned, and donors have been asked to resubmit them so they can help meet the federal matching requirement by being contributed in 1979.

Anderson is still shopping for a campaign manager, but is continuing his travels, with a New Hampshire visit scheduled this weekend.

"I'm of the opinion," he says, "that sooner, rather than later, one should be a declared candidate. One can only explore so long."

BAKER -- The Senate minority leader, 53, was tied down by his 1978 reelection campaign but seems eager to get started. He has appearances in 10 states scheduled in the next month, and has begun interviews for a campaign staff, which aides say will have to be built around different people than those who ran his Tennessee race. among those who served with him in the House and worked with him in the party during his two years as GOP chairman. But Bush has not won an election since 1968, and faces some skepticism as a vote getter.

CONNALLY -- The former Texas governor and treasury secretary, 61, will surprise a growing political staff day. Eddie Mahe, a former Republiif he does not announce his candidacy at the National Press Club Wednescan National Committee executive director, has lured several others from its staff on the expectation of a Connally candidacy, and a headquarters is planned in the Washington area.

Connally has a demonstrated ability to raise funds, but it remains to be seen how much political backing the former Democrat can get in the party he joined only in 1973.

Ever-confident, Connally found an old Texas saying to describe his chances of gaining the Republican nomination and dethroning Reagan: "There ain't a horse that cant' be rode and a rider that can't be throwed."

Like the others, he will start riding and throwing toward New Hampshire, but will probably maintain his law firm affiliation for some months while he tests the campaign trail. 0868tts ad 14 republicans-n goligtly

CRANE -- After five months of campaigning the staunchly conservative congressman, 48, said last week that he had 1,300 workers signed up, including 189 county chairmen and 152 delegates and alternates to the 1976 convention. But there were no well-known names on the list, and relatively few identifiable defections from Reagan.

With help from Richard Viguerie, Crane raised $750,000 last year. He has a functioning Washington campaign headquarters, run by his former administrative assistant, Richard Williamson, with an experienced lineup in the top six spots.

While seeking support for 1980, Crane, says Williamson, is cognizant of Reagan's strength, and is also trying to position himself as the nation's "leading conservative spokesman for the next generation." If Reagan stumbles for any reason, the next generation could arrive next year.

DOLE -- The Kansas senator, 55, is officially undecided on running, but last year he visited 42 states to help local candidates and rekindle friendships he made as national party chairman and as Ford's 1976 running mate.

Dole calls himself a "very probable candidate," but friends say they are not certain he is finding enough support to take the plunge, with his own Senate seat also up in 1980.

Paul Russo, who ran Dole's midterm election political-action committee, is looking after his prospective candidacy for now, and reportedly is urging the senator to make an early decision, least Reagan, Connally, Bush and Baker carve up all the available support.

WEICKER -- The Connecticut senator, 47, describes himself as "the-longest shot in the field," and says he will have to announce by mid-March or "I don't stand a chance."

For now, he's being helped by administrative assistant Peter Kinsey and press secretary Richard McGowan. If Weicker runs, his hope would be to score in the early New England (Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont) regional primary and then pick up a mass of delegates in New York.

But as an outspoken progressive, who was even more anti-Nixon during Watergate than John Anderson, Weicker would be, in his own judgment, a real outsider, except for the fact that he thinks at least half the other contenders have no real chance either.

"At least my candidacy ought to give you something to write about," he says. "Otherwise, the Republicans and Democrats are going to be very much alike and very boring."

Baker faces a problem of combining a campaign with his duties as minority leader, but aides say he would like to retain the title, while deputy leader Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) patrols the floor.

A centrist by instinct, Baker angered some conservatives with his affirmative Panama Canal treaties vote, and has another tough call coming up with the SALT treaty. But his present poll standing, an aide says, "means he's right where he ought to be."

BUSH -- The former ambassador and party chairman, 54, has deliberately skirted Washington for the past year while assembling the start of a campaign organization, largely former Ford allies. But he will make a splash this week, with two speeches, a press breakfast and a television interview.

A Bush-for-president committee, with former Ford campaign manager James A. Baker III as its chairman, is working out of Houston, with half-a-dozen other Ford aides on board. But, in keeping with his approach of organizing first and seeking name recognition afterward (the technique that worked for Carter), Bush has no press secretary.

He does have the leaders of Ford's New Hampshire organization on his side, and a broad network of friends.