Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts gets more favorable ratings from the public than any of the most likely 1988 Democratic presidential candidates, but he gets more unfavorable ones, too.

Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado is in a strong No. 2 spot, with almost as many supporters as Kennedy but considerably fewer detractors.

Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, on the other hand, is a blank slate for a large majority of people, with almost two of every three unable to say whether they have a favorable or unfavorable impression of him.

At this stage the big early surprise for the Democrats could be none of the above, in the form of Lee Iacocca, the Chrysler Corp. chairman who is occasionally promoted as a candidate. Iacocca has only a small name-recognition problem, and, for every person who sees him in an unfavorable light, more than three think of him favorably -- which is more than any other leading Democrat or Republican can say.

These are some of the findings of a nationwide Washington Post-ABC News public opinion poll that looked at some of the potential 1988 presidential candidates from both political parties.

The survey also asked people what they thought about a few other public figures, such as former presidents Jimmy Carter, who has gained sharply in public esteem since he left office, and Richard M. Nixon, who has not.

The poll, taken July 25-29, asked a random sample of 1,506 people whether they had a favorable or unfavorable impression of each of 12 potential candidates or leading public figures. Some political analysts regard that measure as an important indicator over time of a candidate's potential.

Here, in thumbnail fashion, is how the public sees the Democrats. A report on the Republicans will appear in a subsequent article. The figures represent the views of all people, Democrats, Republicans and independents, except when otherwise specified: Edward M. Kennedy

Draws the highest positive rating of any of the potential Democratic candidates listed, 55 percent, but, aside from Jesse L. Jackson, the highest negatives among them, 33 percent. Kennedy has always done best in surveys during periods when people are not thinking about elections. Once he has entered a contest, he has been hampered by the character issue, growing out of the Chappaquiddick incident in 1969. In this poll, Kennedy does better among women than men (58 percent favorable, compared to 52 percent).

*Strengths: Blacks, 84 percent favorable (higher even than Jackson); Democrats, 71 percent favorable; liberals, 65 percent favorable; working class, 62 percent favorable; big-city dwellers, 61 percent favorable; East, 63 percent favorable.

*Weaknesses: Conservatives, 50 percent unfavorable; middle class, 40 percent unfavorable; household incomes of $30,000 and above, 41 percent unfavorable. Gary Hart

With an overall rating of 47 percent favorable, 22 percent unfavorable, Hart is well-positioned for a strong drive in 1988. But his 1984 campaign left unanswered questions for many people, a possible explanation for the 31 percent who offered no opinion.

*Strengths: Hart has not antagonized any groups, could be able to do well with independents. Even Republicans give him an overall positive rating, 38 percent favorable, 30 percent unfavorable; likewise conservatives, who rate him 37 percent favorable, 33 percent unfavorable. His appeal cuts basically evenly across the socio-economic strata, across all age groups, and, of special importance, holds steady in all regions.

*Weaknesses: Having gone as far as he did in 1984, Hart might have made a stronger impression on more people; 31 percent with no opinion seems somewhat high. Mario M. Cuomo

Lowest name recognition of any of the Democrats listed, with 64 percent offering no opinion on him. Comes in with a basically clean slate: 24 percent favorable, 12 percent unfavorable -- and high ratings of 44 percent favorable, 15 percent unfavorable in his home territory, the East, where he is best known.

*Strengths: While generally seen as the one person who stands most for traditional Democratic policies that aid the poor and middle classes, Cuomo is best known and highest rated among those in the top third in education and income, drawing a 35 percent favorable, 16 percent unfavorable score from them. Democrats as a group rate him 31 percent favorable, 9 percent unfavorable; liberals 30 percent favorable, 8 percent unfavorable; he has equal appeal to union and non-union households, to whites and blacks, men and women, the poor and the well-to-do.

*Weaknesses: Does poorest in South, with 16 percent favorable, 13 percent unfavorable. He is basically unknown in Midwest, where 74 percent offer no opinion; gets an overall negative rating from conservatives, 18 percent favorable, 20 percent unfavorable. Jesse L. Jackson

With an overall rating of 43 percent positive and 41 percent negative, he scores substantially better now than when he was a presidential candidate. He has a 78 percent favorable rating among blacks.

*Strengths: Blacks are unified behind him and he does well with the portion of the population under age 45 as a whole. He scores 50-to-37 favorable among those 18 to 30, and 49-to-36 favorable among those 31 to 44. As noted, those figures are for Republicans, independents and Democrats. Scores 52-to-35 positive among liberals.

*Weaknesses: Divisive. Whites rate him 38 percent positive, 47 percent negative. People 45 and older, upper-income people, westerners, small-town and rural people are more on the negative than positive side. He has the potential, as in 1984, to create a white backlash. Lee Iacocca

A wild card. Occasionally mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate. His 49 percent favorable, 15 percent unfavorable score gives him a higher positive ratings than any contender except Kennedy, and fewer negative ratings than any except Cuomo.

*Strengths: Unlike any of the Democrats, Iacocca draws favorable ratings from rank-and-file Republicans (55 percent favorable, 14 percent unfavorable). That is even better than his 47-to-17 score among Democrats. He is liked in union and non-union households to the same degree, gets roughly equal support in all regions and age groups. In only one group -- self-described liberals -- do as many as 20 percent say they have an unfavorable impression.

*Weaknesses: Iacocca has more question marks than weaknesses at this stage. Low-income people and blacks, both key Democratic constituencies, have not taken to him the way others have. Among those groups, 29 percent give him a favorable rating, 17 percent an unfavorable rating and 54 percent offer no opinion. Jimmy Carter

With an overall rating of 55 percent favorable, 39 percent unfavorable, he seems more highly regarded now than during most of his presidency, and his rating is almost the reverse of what it was in December 1980, as his term drew to a close.

*Strengths: Of the public figures listed, Carter is the favorite of blacks, edging out Kennedy and Jackson with an 85 percent favorable, 6 percent unfavorable score. Many liberals and other Democrats complained that Carter was too Republican as president, but today liberals give him a 65 percent favorable, 29 percent unfavorable score; Democrats rate him 70 percent favorable, 25 percent unfavorable.

*Weaknesses: Republicans and independents who lean Republican still tend to sneer at Carter, scoring him 38 percent favorable, 57 percent unfavorable; a majority of conservatives (54 percent) rate him unfavorably; in the West and among people with incomes over $30,000, Carter draws almost as many negative as positive scores.

POLLING METHOD

A total of 1,506 adults in the continental United States, selected at random, were interviewed by telephone July 25-29.

The sample was adjusted slightly to match Census Bureau figures for the entire population and for age, sex, race and education.

Theoretically, a poll of 1,506 people has a sampling-error margin of 3 percentage points, 95 times out of 100. That does not take into account other, non- sampling errors that may occur.