In February, responding to questions before a conservative political group in Florida, former Delaware governor Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV said the AIDS epidemic represented "an enormous medical challenge" to the country. Several people in the audience booed because du Pont did not discuss acquired immune deficiency syndrome as a "moral" issue.

Three months later, du Pont and two other Republican presidential hopefuls -- Rep. Jack Kemp (N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (Kan.) -- withdrew their support of a testimonial dinner for U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. They were prompted, in part, by the controversy among conservatives over Koop's report on AIDS last year, which encouraged sex education at an earlier age in the schools and the widespread use of condoms to promote "safe sex."

AIDS, the fatal and incurable disease that has killed more than 20,000 Americans since it was identified in 1981, has risen to near the top of public concerns. It is widely assumed that the question of how best to contain the epidemic will be a major subject of discussion and debate in the 1988 presidential campaign.

"If, in fact, 50,000 people will have died of AIDS by Election Day next year, how can it not be an issue?" asked Eddie Mahe, a Republican political consultant.

But Mahe and several other political professionals also predict that, despite widespread and growing public fear of the disease, the AIDS question may not be a dominant or decisive issue in the 1988 presidential campaign despite efforts by conservative groups and gay activists to make it so.

It is, they noted, the type of issue from which politicians instinctively flee.

"Is somebody going to be pro-AIDS?" asked David Keene, a senior adviser to Dole. "You may have a candidate attempt to play on fear, but if you have a serious health problem, the public assumes that everyone wants to do something about it. It becomes a little like the crime issue."

In both parties, the 1988 hopefuls are cautiously groping for a safe, politically acceptable stance and have already reached a loose consensus on some aspects of the issue.

One is that government funding should be greatly increased, although no candidates are specifying how large that increase should be. Dole uses a common formulation calling for "whatever resources are necessary to get the job done."

There is also virtually unanimous agreement among the candidates on the need for a massive education program on how the disease is transmitted. There are likely to be differences of emphasis here, with Republican candidates especially under pressure from the religious right to stress abstinence from sex outside marriage as the only truly safe course.

But on such questions, Keene said, "as a practical matter candidates on both sides are going to fudge." Through a spokesman, Vice President Bush said this week that AIDS education "is something that has to be resolved at local levels," not by the federal government.

The most potentially explosive issue concerns testing for the AIDS virus and associated questions involving guarantees of confidentiality of test records and nondiscrimination for those found to be carrying the virus. When President Reagan called this week for widespread "routine testing" for the AIDS virus before the American Foundation for AIDS Research, he, like du Pont in Florida, was greeted with scattered boos.

The testing question is fraught with political uncertainty, often pitting conservative political activists who support mandatory tests not only against gay-rights groups but also public health officials, including Koop, who also oppose the practice. The issue is not testing itself, but who will be tested, under what circumstances, and what will be done with the test results.

"Testing is important, and we encourage it," said Vic Basile, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a gay and lesbian political action committee. Basile and others in the gay community support voluntary testing of "high-risk" groups such as homosexuals, but argue that extension of the AIDS test to marriage license applicants and other "low-risk" groups, as advocated this week by Reagan as official administration policy, would divert attention and resources from the real problems.

But among the most conservative activists, candidates' positions on "how much and how aggressive a testing program will be the issue," said Michael Schwartz of the Free Congress Foundation. He predicted Dole "is going to pay" for a vote last month against mandatory testing.

The first two times the testing issue came up in a purely political context -- in Congress -- this year, advocates of mandatory testing of certain groups were soundly defeated, but by earlier this week sentiment had changed.

In March, the House decisively rejected an amendment to require AIDS tests for those entering federally funded shelters for the homeless. Kemp was among the 69 House Republicans who opposed the amendment. The Senate last month defeated, 63 to 32, an attempt by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to mandate AIDS tests for marriage license applicants and immigrants to the United States. Dole not only voted against Helms, but he also spoke against the measure on the floor, urging a cautious approach.

But this week the Senate quickly endorsed one aspect of Reagan's policy, voting 96 to 0 for another Helms proposal to require AIDS testing for immigrants.

The political tides are clearly running in favor of a more widespread testing program supported by the federal government and could easily sweep up most of the presidential hopefuls in both parties. Since March, Kemp has joined Bush in an endorsement of mandatory AIDS tests for marriage license applicants and other GOP contenders are edging in that direction.

On the Democratic side, only one of the announced candidates, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (Tenn.), has ruled out a mandatory testing program for marriage license applicants, saying it "would only focus resources on groups with the lowest risk." But former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) have suggested a willingness to consider such steps.

"The public's attitude is, 'Do everything,' " said William Schneider, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. He said recent polls show that 80 percent of the public supports AIDS tests as part of the marriage license application procedure.

How these factors play themselves out politically is far from certain, but each party has its own set of interest groups to deal with in addressing the AIDS issue. In what is perhaps an exercise in wishful thinking, political operatives tend to see the question posing a larger problem for the other party.

The GOP's Mahe said, "It is a much more difficult issue for the Democrats to handle. They have that vast gay community to deal with in the primaries."

A Democratic strategist, who asked not to be identified, concurred, predicting that "the Democratic Party will turn itself into a pretzel trying to deal with this issue" and balance public health concerns with its strong support for civil liberties protections.

But Schneider, also a Democrat, said AIDS will be "a minor theme in the Democratic process" as Republicans come under increasing pressure from the religious right for more sweeping measures. Republican Marion G. (Pat) Robertson, alone among the candidates of both parties, has already suggested that "state and local governments will be forced to apply some sort of quarantine of AIDS victims."

The uncertainties about the disease makes predictions about its likely political impact equally uncertain. "This is an issue that creates a lot of fear and a lot of hostility," said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster. "That's a lethal combination in politics."

Hart said he could foresee AIDS emerging in the 1988 campaign "in its scarry form, by a candidate who is down and will hurl it, much as Ronald Reagan reached down and grabbed the Panama Canal issue in 1976."

Others are not sure that even a desperate presidential candidate will choose AIDS as a vehicle to revitalize a faltering campaign. "It is not the kind of issue anyone is going to want to demagogue," said Harrison Hickman, another Democratic pollster. He predicted "a sort of . . . standoff" as candidates in both parties seek the safest ground on a public health issue about which so much is still not known.