When 12 diverse and good-natured citizens agree to watch two dozen television commercials for the five remaining presidential candidates, an outsider watching them learns:

President Carter enjoys an unusual but genuine sympathy from Democrats, Republicans and independents, a sympathy that his commericals reinforce. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy makes people nervous; TV commercials intended to praise his character make people angry.

Ronald Reagan looks better in his commercials than a lot of people expect him to. George Bush and John B. Anderson evoke conflicting reactions.

American citizens can be wise and sophisticated about television advertising, but they also acquire significant information about politicians from commercials less than a minute long.

The results of this experiment are not scientific or conclusive. But they suggest why Carter and Reagan are the front-runners this year, and they suggest why politicians spend tens of millions of dollars every election year to advertise on television.

The 12 participants were of all ages and occupations -- including two blacks, five women, a college student and a retired attorney of 71 -- who volunteered to help The Washington Post prepare this article. The group included four Democrats, four Republicans, three independents and one liberal.

They sat for several hours in the conference room of WTEN-TV here and watched two dozen 30- and 60-second commercials, all being shown to promote the five remaining candidates. This article will deal with the panel's reaction to the Carter and Kennedy commercials. An article tomorrow will consider the Republicans' ads.

The latest Kennedy ads, made by media consultant Charles Guggenheim, come in two varieties. Some are intended to convey the impression that Kennedy is a tough, compassionate, experienced politician by emphasizing his Senate career and champaign positions. The others are aimed squarely at the "character" issue, and are intended to counter perceptions that Kennedy is not a good enough man for the job.

A spot featuring Ethel Kennedy, the candidate's sister-in-law, drew the sharpest criticism from the group. The ad begins with an announcer's voice over a shot of Ethel Kennedy in tennis clothes.

"What kind of man is Edward Kennedy?" the announcer asks. Then the figure of Mrs. Kennedy comes to life, and she says:

"Well, what can I say? I see it in my own life. And, uh, I see how he's, helps the children, and, uh, always with the sort of nice, light touch. He seems to care for those who can't care for themselves, that's all I'm trying to say. And he's got this wonderful quality that he seems to see beyond what other people do." That is the entire commercial. It evoked this comment:

George Carpinello, 29, an attorney and registered Democrat: "That ad with Ethel Kennedy was one of the worst ads I've ever seen. . . ."

Mark A. Nordstrom, 29, a state official, marathoner and Republican: "It looked like she was trying to think of what nice she could say about him." "

Carpinello again: "Moreover, I got confused a minute -- I thought it was his wife (Joan Kennedy), and I thought boy, this is really masochistic, this poor woman who's loved him all this time, she's been crying in all the news conferences, now they've got her doing this ad. Of course, it wasn't (Joan) but I would bet that other people would get this feeling. . . .That's an absolutely terrible ad."

Harold Rubin, 53, a neighborhood activist, state bureaucrat and registered independent, was appalled by "the idea of having some member of the family give an endorsement to her brother-in-law." Catherine Hoke, 51, a welfare recipient, did not like that idea either.

Only one member of the panel, Darlene Barber, a 29-year-old secretary and parttime real estate agent, was an avowed Kennedy supporter. (Three others said they favored Carter, one Bush, one Anderson and the other six were undecided.) Responding to general criticism of the Kennedy commercials, Barber said with a defiant smile that she liked them. "I didn't see anything wrong with them," she added.

Her friend, Barbara Perry, 54, also a secretary, said that proved what she thought about political commercials: "People have their minds made up before they see them." But others in the group disagreed -- particularly those who said they had not made up their minds.

Doris Davis, 38, a Republican housewife, suggested the depth of Kennedy's electoral problems this year in a commentary on another Kennedy ad, a collage of film clips from his life as a senator, with a commentary emphasizing his involvement in important issues.

"I thought that one was the best," Davis said. "It showed him in an environment that we associate him with. He was in control . . . He looked tough.

"But I -- I don't know why, but psychologically it turned me off. I didn't like what it ended up making me think. I think it was too slick. That's strange, but it was too good."

Nordstrom had a similar feeling, with similarly gloomy implications for Kennedy: "That ad gave me a good feeling. I wouldn't want him as my president, but it gave me a good feeling."

The panel saw six Carter Commercials prepared by Gerald Rafshoon, the president's ad man. Five include film clips depicting Carter in some presidential role; the sixth is an anti-Kennedy ad showing only a ballot with Carter and Kennedy's names clearly visible while an announcer reads a message warning that a candidate's character is as important as his record.

Each of the other commercials carries a single message. One recalls the Camp David Mideast agreements with evocative film of Carter, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat; another emphasizes that Carter tells the truth, whether or not people argee with him; another shows the Carter family in the White House and boasts of their good family life.

The last one was criticized by many in the group. "We're not electing Amy to the White House," said independent Rubin in a typical remark. But Barber, the Kennedy supporter, defended use of the family in a Carter ad:

"It's really an integral part of Carter's campaign, the way he promotes himself -- you know, born-again Christian, family man, solid, this is what he is trying to put across."

The family ad was the only one of Carter's criticized by anyone in the group. "I suppose in this group I'm the harshest critic of Carter," said Nat Boynton, 62, editor of a weekly newspaper in Delmar, N.Y., "but I would say these commercials were by far the best of the whole series that we've seen.I really was impressed by them." (The Carter ads were shown after Kennedy's and those of the three Republicans.)

The theory behind Rafshoon's ads is to try to remind viewers of things they like about Carter. Judging by the reactions here, they work. Lawyer Carpinello, for example, said, "I was repared to be very cynical about these (Carter) ads," but watching the one on Camp David, he said he remembered the chills of excitement that went down his spin when he orginally watched the signing of the Mideast peace agreement.

"Totally involuntarily," Carpinello said, "that same feeling" came back while he watched Rafshoon's 60-second spot.

Barber liked the Carter ads: "I'm really torn between Kennedy and Carter. If I voted for Carter it would be because I feel so sorry for the man. Really, I do. I mean, he's under so much pressure. . . ."

The quietest participant was David Bishop, 22, a truck driver who volunteered he did not pay much attention to politics and had never voted. He liked the Carter commercial that emphasized honesty.

"That's his strong point, the honesty one there. Especially after what we went through with Nixon. . . . I feel good about Carter. I think he's honest, and he's trying."

Rubin had read a recent newspaper column that said Carter was the most inept president since Harding, "and yet from these commercials, the impression you get is of a very warm person, honest, hard-working, he doesn't care if he gets reelected, he's a peacemaker.That's what came across."