Going into the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan appears to be the frontrunner by far in the race for the Republican nomination, according to a Washington Post poll.

Not yet an announced candidate, Reagan has kept his popularity high in the conservative wing of the party and is substantially out in front of his likely opponents among the Republican rank and file as well.

Nevertheless, the path toward the nomination may not be an easy one for the former two-team California governor. Judging from participants in The Post poll, the sharp and bitter divisions of the 1976 campaign, when the insurgent Reagan nearly took the nomination from incumbent Gerald Ford, remain.

Reagan has not picked up substantial support from party activists who represent either strong moderate or small liberal elements of the party, the poll indicates. Many appear to be concerned about some of Reagan's followers - "arch-conservative kooks," one poll respondent called them.

But Republicans who oppose Reagan at this stage are fragmented and do not appear to be lining up behind one or even two other candidates. Furthermore, conflicting signals are being emitted by party activists on one hand and rank-and-file Republicans on the other.

For example, Tennessean Howard Baker, the Senate minority and highest ranking Republican office-holder in the land, has not yet announced as a candidate but places second to Reagan among potential voters. Baker, however, does poorly among party activists.

Former Texas governor John Connally, who has announced his candidacy and who already has been campaigning actively, does comparatively well with party activists but poorly, so far, with prospective Republican voters.

What these factors point to, it seems, is intense maneuvering within state party organizations and an exciting round of early primaries next year. Right now, no poll can suggest with any certainty who will emerge strongest against Reagan.

What The Post poll does make clear is that all candidates will be measured against Reagan. As Robert Teeter, a consultant and pollster for Republican candidates, put it, "The non-Reagan wing of the party, whether you call it moderate or something else, will probably have to coalesce around one candidate. They are a long way from doing that right now; it probably won't happen until the primaries start."

The Post polled two distinctly different populations in May in its attempt to take an early look at possible key factors in the 1980 campaign. First, by mail, The Post interviewed 1,310 delegates to the 1976 Republican presidential nominating convention on the grounds that current attitudes of former delegates may foretell mass opinion later on.

Delegates, as party activists, play a major role in shaping the attitudes of the party rank and file. Many of the delegates are party professionals and public officeholders; many others follow politics intensely and tend to line up behind candidates early.

Teeter noted that in the past his own polls of activist groups, including polls of former delegates, have provided the most reliable indicators of what to expect in a campaign. He said, however, that the increasing importance of presidential primaries tends to lessen the influence of party activists.

In addition to the delegates, The Post interviewed 1,808 adults nationwide by telephone in May for a sampling of opinion and attitudes of the general public.

Among the former delegates, 43 percent said Reagan was their first choice for the nomination in 1980. No other candidate or prospective candidate came close. Second was Connally, with 16 percent; third was George Bush, a former Nixon and Ford administration official, with 11 percent. U.S. Rep. Phillip M. Crane had 7 percent and Baker had 6 percent.

"I am completely dedicated to Ronald Reagen," said a Texas delegate, Pat Jacobson. "His humility, courage, common-sense government and complete honesty are the reasons."

"I was a Reagan delegate all the way in 1976 and plan to support Governor Reagan again in 1980," said Dud Lastrapes of Lafayette, La.

In key ways, Jacobson and Lastrapes are typical Reagan supporters. Both are from the South, where Reagan appears immensely popular despite the presence of Texas' Connally and Tennessee's Baker as likely opponents.

Both Jacobson and Lastrapes list themselves on the far right in political ideology, saying they stand at "nine" on a scale that goes from one (very liberal) to nine (very conservative). They see Reagan at the same spot - nine.

Reagan's composite score, an average of all delegates' assessments of a potential candidate's ideology, is 8.1, almost as far to the right as is possible. Thay may be fine for many Reagan supporters, but it is a cause of concern to others in the party.

For example, Susan McLane, a New Hampshire legislator and a former Ford delegate, considers herself a moderate and is frightened by Reagan. "I still feel as strongly as four years ago that Reagan and his well-articulated conservatism represent a threat to our national policies, domestic and especially foreign. So my main political interest is to defeat him."

A former Ford delegate from the state of Washington, John Prins Jr., said, "The problem with Reagan is not so much Reagan himself but rather his supporters. He attracts the "arch-conservative" kooks that I cannot stomach . . . In 1980 I am not for anyone - I am against the extremists."

The views of these few delegates, taken from comments they sent The Post, seem to represent the views of the many, both pro and con. Reagan's greatest strength is among conservatives in the South and West. His weakness is among moderates, especially in the East.

Among those who supported Reagan for the nomination in 1976, 73 percent now favor him as the 1980 nominee, and 15 percent list him as their number two choice.

Among those who supported Ford in 1976, only 11 percent support Reagan now and only 6 percent list him as their second choice. Placing first among the former Ford delegates is John Connally, with 25 percent; second is Bush, with 21 percent. Ford himself draws 12 percent, but he has taken himself out as an active candidate, saying he will not enter any primaries.

Baker also draws 12 percent from the former Ford delegates. Republican pollster Teeter feels that Baker's comparatively poor showing with the delegates may later improve.

"Baker is behind in organization, campaigning, travelling around," Teeter said.

Three Republicans who have announced their candidacies for the nomination get almost no support as first choices from the former delegates at this stage.Crane drew 4 percent; Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and John B. Anderson, the other Illinois congressman in the race, got less than that.

The split among former Ford supporters seems clearly linked to political ideology. While Baker does not score well among them as a group, he places first among the 12 percent of erstwhile Ford supporters who see themselves on the liberal to liberal-moderate end of the ideology scale.Bush is strongest among the 45 percent who describe themselves as moderate or moderate-conservative. Reagan Does best among the 11 percent who say they are conservative or very conservative.

For each of these announced or unannounced candidates, support clusters around a fairly narrow ideological position. Only John Connally is the exception. He places first among those who call themselves somewhat conservative, but gets at least some support from virtually all segments of the party.

Judging from both former Ford and Reagan delegates, in fact, Connally seems to emerge as a possible compromise candidate. There is a certain irony in that - Connally seems to spark intense likes and dislikes among the delegates, not the usual attribute of a compromise candidate.

One Pennsylvania delegate, Roger B. Campbell, called Connally "LBJ's clone" and said Connally is "far too much the Texas wheeler-dealer to be electable. Positively oozes arrogance . . . The party is not about to commit suicide by running him."

Such comments notwithstanding, when the former delegates are asked to list their first and second choices for the nomination, Connally's name is mentioned by 40 percent. Only Reagan does better; no other candidate even approaches the two.

Crane is mentioned by 23 percent as a possible first or second choice, but virtually all his support comes from people who want Reagan first. Bush is mentioned by 22 percent and Baker by 18 percent, but their support comes almost exclusively from former Ford delegates.

Connally, on the other hand, draws almost as much support from the Reagan side as he does from the Ford side, when acceptability as a second choice is included.

The Post poll asked delegates to state whether they preferred a candidate with whom they agreed on most issues or one who had the best chance of winning the general election. Supporters of Reagan and Crane, the two most ideologically pure candidates, felt overwhelmingly that harmony on issues was more important than winning.

Supporters of the other candidates said winning was more important, and the ones who felt that way most strongly were the Connally backers, who chose winning over issues by 71 percent to 26 percent.

But Connally does not do as well in the Post's second poll.

People who identified themselves as Republicans or independents in The Post's national telephone poll were given a list of 10 possible Republican nominees and asked to choose among them. Reagan placed first, Gerald Ford second and Baker third. With Ford left out of the calculations, the distribution, based on Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who said they were registered voters, was 31 percent for Reagan, 18 percent for Baker and 10 percent for Connally.

Republican pollster Teeter notes that "Baker has shown unique strength among general election and Republican voters."

The Post's sampling of Republican voters is at best a rough gauge of sentiment. Most people haven't gotten around to thinking about the 1980 campaign and won't for quite a while. In addition, in The Post's poll of 1,808 people, only 351 identified themselves as Republicans; 155 more said they were independents who lean Republican. Findings based on a group that small are necessarily shakier than those based on a larger sample.

Even on this rough gauge, however, some statements may be made with a degree of certainty. Reagan clearly has a substantial lead with rank-and-file Republicans, but not an overwhelming one. If he is to be successful he must strive for more support than he has among those who consider themselves liberal or moderate Republicans. CAPTION: Chart 1, How Former Delegates View Likely GOP Presidential Candidates By Alice Kresse - The Washington Post; Chart 2, How Former Republican Delegates View Jimmy Carter