Former president Gerald R. Ford shifted gears into lowered expectations yesterday, winding down prospects he will become a presidential candidate after hearing tough assessments of his chances from close confidants.

After days of talking optimistically about his chances of winning the Republican presidential nomination despite a late start, Ford spoke instead yesterday of how the response to his suggested candidacy had been disappointing, and how his delegate prospects were only marginal.

"There have been some surprises, some disappointments," Ford said. "I guess that's typical of the political arena."

The former president, who had said last week he would feel obligated to run if those who had urged him to do so privately would state their views publicly, conceded that such support has not been forthcoming from a number of leading Republicans.

"Like a lot of politicians, they hedge their bets," he said, speaking quietly, with little enthusiasm but without bitterness. ". . . Some who urged me to come and campaign most arduously in their districts and states now have not really gotten into the fray." He paused. "It's all right. I understand."

In Florida last week, Ford spoke optimistically of his prospects of winning the GOP nomination on the first ballot despite a late start. But if he was teaching it round last week, Ford taught it flat at yesterday's breakfast with a group of reporters.

"I don't have the figures before me," Ford said when asked about his nomination prospects. "It's feasible . . . but even those figures, they are very marginal." Ford's shift in tone and tenor came the morning after he heard a tough assessment of his prospects in a meeting with six men who had been among his closest political associates in years past.

Ford received divided counsel from his advisers on the question on whether he can win and whether he should run.

"We were not unanimous in our views," said one here was agreement only on the fact that it would, at best, be difficult, this source said.

When the meeting adjourned, those present felt Ford had not made up his mind on whether to seek the nomination. At the meeting were pollster Robert Teeter; Rep. Richard Cheney (R-Wyo.), Ford's former chief of staff; political campaign consultants John Deardourff and Doug Bailey; John Marsh, a former White House assistant, and Thomas Reed, former Air Force secretary who is now heading the draft Ford committee.

One of Ford's disappointment has been the lack of public endorsements from the nation's Republican governors. Gov. Richard Snelling of Vermont, who had been a supporter of the recently withdrawn candidate, Howard H. Baker Jr., had been trying to convene a meeting of GOP governors in Washington with Ford yesterday. But that session was called off at the last minute, apparently due to the lack of public enthusiasm on the part of the governors.

Gov. James Rhodes of Ohio, who had led the Ford slate in his state in 1976, has said he will not be a delegate for Ford or anyone else this time.

Gov. Richard Thornburgh of Pennsylvania has declined to endorse Ford, Gov. Bob Ray of Iowa reportedly has neither heard from Ford nor called him, Gov. Pierre duPont of Delaware says he will make no decision before the Illinois primary Tuesday, Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee had declined to take sides and his advisers are split between Ford and Reagan, Gov. John Dalton of Virginia has praised Ford but not endorsed him, and Gov. Albert Quie of Minnesota has said of Ford, "I told him he better not expect anything from me."

Meanwhile, at breakfast, Ford was speaking of Reagan's political strength within the party with renewed appreciation. "Reagan has the strongest base of support I've seen in politics," he said -- and that includes Barry Goldwater's base among that same right wing of the party in 1964.

At one point, Ford said: "I don't want to create the impression that I'm just a spoiler. . . . The last thing I want to do is to tear apart the possibility of a Republican victory [in November]."

However, Ford discounted criticism from aides of George Bush that the mere dangling of the prospect of a Ford candidacy had hurt their candidate crucially. "When you lose, you try to look around and find all kinds of scapegoats," he said.

The strongest advocate of a Ford candidacy, Reed, has made a case that Ford can win the nomination provided he can win in Ohio, Texas and California -- plus a series of circumstantial victories of uncommitted slates in large industrial states such as New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

But Ford conceded yesterday that in Texas he would need a surrogate name that is already on the ballot -- and John B. Connally has removed that option by removing his name as part of his withdrawal from the race. Reagan also swept Ford in Texas in 1976, and beat Ford overwhelmingly in California -- where Ford now lives, but where Reagan also lives and served two terms as governor -- and that state is a winner-take-all primary.

Still, Ford said, he would not refrain from running simply because of the prospect of losing. "I've run and lost," he said.

Ford said at one point: "I think it would be unfortunate if the result of the convention were predetermined before the convention got together." When a reporter suggested this was not his view when he was trying to lock up the nomination as a front-runner four years ago, Ford said, "Things change."

And when the reporter observed Ford was not "being consistent," the former president said, laughing, "Very few politicians are."