All but one of seven Democratic candidates for the 1988 presidential nomination have reservations about President Reagan's plan to provide naval protection to Kuwaiti oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, while five of seven Republican hopefuls unconditionally support it.

In response to questions posed by The Washington Post, the Democrats said that either they weren't sure if they would proceed or that they would do so only in concert with allies or would do so only for a specified time period.

The exception was Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), who said that to turn down the Kuwaiti request would have "discredited the U.S." and would be "extremely damaging" in view of the Soviet Union's decision to play a role of guarantor of free passage for Kuwaiti oil tankers.

Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis stated the more standard Democratic view: "I don't believe the United States ought to use armed forces in the gulf unless it does so in concert with other nations, preferably under the aegis of the United Nations Security Council." To act alone, he added, involves "running risks which are neither desirable nor justified."

The Reagan administration has agreed to "reflag" the Kuwaiti oil tankers and to provide naval escorts to keep the oil flowing in the gulf in the face of the seven-year-old Iran-Iraq war. The president has said he is seeking more support for the operation from Western allies and Japan, who are far more reliant on Middle Eastern oil than is the United States, and from moderate Arab states, but he has not made it a condition for the United States to proceed.

His approach is backed by most of the Republicans seeking to succeed him, though several proposed that U.S. allies at least help pay for the operation. "We're always picking up the tab when we don't eat the lunch," said Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.).

Two Republicans expressed misgivings about the operation itself -- Dole and and former secretary of state Alexander M. Haig Jr. "I'm very skeptical and nervous about it. I don't know all we face . . . . We really jumped in responding to the Soviet Union," Haig said.

Dole said the United States cannot "duck our responsibilities as the leader of the free world . . . {but} the model is not Rambo but Teddy Roosevelt." He said that without a commitment of military assistance in the operation from European allies, Kuwaitis and Saudi Arabia, he was "not quite" sure he would proceed.

Each candidate was interviewed personally by a Post reporter.

In a Washington Post-ABC poll completed earlier this week, Americans agreed, 57 percent to 39 percent, that the United States should use force, if necessary, to ensure the free passsage of oil through the gulf. However, the approval dropped, 53 percent to 44 percent, when respondents were asked whether they supported the mission planned by the Reagan administration.

"Right now, my guess is that most voters would say, 'Let's be careful. Let's get the allies involved,' " said Ben Wattenberg, a public opinion analyst and chairman of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, a group that has accused the Democratic Party of adopting a soft-line on foreign affairs that is both bad policy and politics. "So right now, the candidates who are dithering may be a little bit ahead.

"But suppose Reagan goes in there, and suppose you get another Stark hit, and suppose that, in response, one night we go in and take out Iranian air force and navy and oil installations. It would be the Iranian equivalent of Grenada. If it worked, if the strikes were surgical, it would skyrocket Reagan in the polls. And the Republican candidates would all be saying, 'See, the politics of strength are better than the politics of wimpishness.'

"We don't know the end of the story, yet. Like everything in life, if this operation works, you're a hero. If not -- if a bunch of Americans come back in body bags -- you're a bum," Wattenberg said.

The questions posed by The Post to the 14 candidates included: Do U.S. interests in the gulf justify using U.S. naval forces to protect Kuwaiti oil tankers? Did it matter that the Soviets offered to help? Does it matter that allies are reluctant to join the operation? What should the rules of engagement be?

Democrats:

Jesse L. Jackson: "We have a stake there that goes beyond the percentage of oil we get. We have a geopolitical interest as well as a moral and human one. {But} the American people are not ready to accept the idea that America has the sole responsiblity for the gulf . . . . We must meet multilaterally with the British and the French . . . . We should call a {U.N.} Security Council meeting to call for . . . a cease fire" Engagement rules? "We should fire back whenever fired upon."

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.): "I don't have possession of sufficient information to give you a yes-or-no answer. I would want to know whether the commitment would involve us in the violence, if it would enagage us as a principal in the conflict between Iraq and Iran . . . I don't think the fact that the Soviets offered help was enough in itself to make this commitment . . . . Our ships should obviously try to intercept any missiles or hostile force."

Sen. Paul Simon (Ill.): "It is a responsibility, but it doesn't make sense for us to shoulder the whole thing. I think Japan and Western Europe should do their share." On the Soviet role: "I think we have a right to be concerned." On rules of engagement: "We should be prepared to take defensive action, but we have to be very, very careful. The danger is that something could happen there and then escalate."

Former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt: "I do think we have a clear interest in protecting neutral shipping and making our presence felt. We should broaden the effort to include other nations. I believe a logical way to do it is to place a time limit on our unilateral commitment of say 90 days, and indicate that in the absence of international cooperation we'll reassess . . . . President Reagan is 'dead right' in not spelling out the military response in the event of an attack."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.): "The degree to which we take on the commitment should be in direct proportion to the willingness of -- the necessity of -- the gulf states and of the French and the British to cooperate. Without them, we can't go rolling a carrier into the region . . . . The whole Soviet dimension is not as serious a threat as the administration makes it out to be . . . . If there is an incoming aircraft within the zone where they could fire a missile, {our forces} should engage."

Dukakis: "I oppose unilateral action, so I don't think there should be rules of engagement."

Gore: "British and French ships are doing escort duty for tankers carrying their flags. Other allies such as the West Germans and Japanese may not engage in naval operations that far from home waters, {but} they can and should help pay costs . . . . Aircraft deemed to be potentially hostile should not be allowed to get within firing range."

Republicans:

Vice President Bush: "The deployment is one we can handle. We have the assets without putting a strain on our deployments in other parts of the world." Did Soviet action require a U.S. response? "No." Should allies do more? "I personally would like to see the allies make more of a contribution." Rules of engagement? "That's too hypothetical a question. In a broad sense, U.S. naval vessels should always be able to protect themselves."

Rep. Jack Kemp (N.Y.): "I strongly support the president's effort. I favor a task force and air cover, but not a nuclear aircraft armada . . . . We don't have to jump to everything the Soviets do . . . . I think we need to require our allies, including Japan, to join us . . . . I believe a proper warning to any potential adversary that we would retaliate would be a very strong deterrent."

Former Delaware governor Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV: "Yes. Even Jimmy Carter believed we had an interest there . . . . What the Soviets do is not an important link . . . . I'd say to our allies, who are more dependent on oil from that region than we are, 'Let's get a couple of your ships in there to help us.' Rules of engagement: "To fire back and defend themselves."

Haig: The U.S. move is "an effort not to be one-upped by the Soviet Union in the region . . . . We should have moved a priori to effect {some} sort of international action. The United States once again is on the cutting edge of a policy that could lead to a U.S. back-down and loss of credibility."

Former Nevada senator Paul Laxalt: "I think our interest there, in combination with our allies, requires a naval deployment . . . . I'm sort of interested in the proposal that we be paid by the Japanese and West Germans on a fee basis for the protection we're going to be giving to their oil." Soviets? "Once the Soviets had offered to help . . . I don't think we had any choice." Engagement: "If fired upon, we can respond in kind."

Marion G. (Pat) Robertson: "We should send in sufficient forces to make sure we are invincible to any Iranian action . . . . We would be very foolish to permit the Soviets to secure a major foothold in the Middle East . . . . Nothing in the gulf should be off-limits to a retaliatory strike, but I do not feel the president should telegraph in advance what specific restraints they would use."

Dole: "We ought to have some burden-sharing. The Europeans could make some quiet but firm commitments on access to facilities, whether a base or landing rights, and that goes doubly for the Kuwaitis and the Saudis. In addition, you've got Japan and West Germany. We don't want to be mercenary, but there ought to be some quid pro quo there. Engagement: "You'd use air power to intercept an attack and be prepared to follow on with a punitive response."Staff writers David S. Broder, Bill Peterson, James R. Dickenson, Thomas Edsall and Edward Walsh contributed to this report.