In the preseason of any presidential campaign, it's the duty of all political insiders to incessantly ask one another: "Where do matters stand?" This summer, Democrats of that description have been assiduously trying to size up the most formless presidential field in memory, and the answer keeps coming back the same: "Matters don't yet stand."

The seven Democratic men and (most likely) one woman who will vie for their party's 1988 presidential nomination turned the Labor Day bend of the calendar running flat-out, but in a race that has yet to find a leader, personality, issue or any traction. "It's like a bowl of Jell-O that won't congeal," says Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman.

So far, the major developments of this contest have been hogged by nonstarters and early departers. The withdrawal of Gary Hart and the demurrals of Govs. Mario M. Cuomo of New York and Bill Clinton of Arkansas, former governor Charles S. Robb of Virginia and Sens. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) have done more to set the shape of next year's primaries and caucuses than anything the active candidates have yet said or done.

"If anybody told me right after 1984 that Teddy Kennedy, Mario Cuomo and Gary Hart wouldn't be running for president in 1988, I'd have said they were smoking something funny," said one campaign manager, who asked not to be identified.

Matters will take a different turn this fall, as voters begin to examine the menu before them, but for now Democratic party activists and elected officials around the country remain slow to sign on to anyone's campaign, and the candidates continue to grope for any angle that will set one apart from another.

It hasn't been easy. In age, experience, outlook and instinct, they are almost all roughly of a piece. On domestic issues, most of the field are 1980s Democrats, more comfortable talking about growth and fiscal discipline than about income redistribution and spending programs. In foreign policy, they are 1970s Democrats, more comfortable denouncing weapons systems (especially the Strategic Defense Initiative) and foreign adventurism than asserting a forceful U.S. role in the world.

There is one more striking similarity, given the office at stake. With the exception of Jesse L. Jackson, none of the eight enters this race with a national reputation, and this "stature gap" could well haunt whomever Democrats nominate next July at their convention in Atlanta. That, at least, is what the Republicans hope.

Naturally, there are differences among the eight, and while they turn mostly on personality, issue nuance and tactical positioning, that's exactly where the nomination is likely to be won and lost.

The candidates, their strategies, messages and prospects:Former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt, 49, set himself apart as the candidate with the guts to call for a 5 percent consumption tax and for some popular federal benefits to be based on recipients' needs rather than given automatically. He also talks of having rallied a conservative state legislature behind progressive children's and environmental programs. Babbitt's problem has been money; at his campaign headquarters, they're already recycling cans and cutting staff. He's been forced to throw his resources exclusively into Iowa and New Hampshire; "We're the guerrilla campaign of 1988," says press secretary Michael McCurry. Wherever he goes, Babbitt receives high marks from issues activists for braininess, earthiness and candor, but many politicos say they think he lacks broad voter appeal and count his prospects as shaky. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), 44, has been mixing a generational appeal to the latent idealism of the 1960s with a re'sume' appeal that stresses his 15 years of service on the Foreign Relations Committee. He made a big early splash in fund-raising, but otherwise, his campaign has been the big early disappointment of 1987 -- with lots of message overhauls, staff changes and misspeaking.

Still, hardly anyone counts Biden out. As an orator and personality, he's thought to have more raw potential to connect with voters than anyone in the field. His first "primary" is next week, when he is to chair the hearings on Judge Robert H. Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court. Biden has prejudged Bork twice, saying months ago he would vote to confirm someone like Bork, and more recently that he wouldn't.

Given the shakiness so far, expectations in the political community about his performance under the klieg lights are low. But leading the fight against Bork will give Biden a boost with hard-core party activists, and national news media exposure that his competitors can only envy. "He's been on the runway a long time -- this is the thing that could lift him off," said Democratic activist Ann Lewis, a Jackson backer. Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, 53, would be the front-runner if the term had any context in this field -- which, for now, it doesn't. In the four months since Hart left, Dukakis has raised the most money, hired the most staff (more than 100, and growing), made the fastest progress in the polls, attracted the most news media attention and been the target of the most attacks. He's also the early choice of about half of all New Hampshire Democrats -- based on his proximity (the densely populated southern tier of New Hampshire receives Boston television) and his rivals' relative anonymity.

On the stump, Dukakis talks about the "Massachusetts Miracle" of economic revival, his nine balanced budgets, his immigrant roots, his coalition-building governing style, his passion for the rule of law. His rivals accuse him of taking more credit than he's due for the Massachusetts turnabout, and of hiding his true colors -- they peg him as a northeastern, antidefense liberal. "It's a strategy of label and dispose," says Dukakis' Paul Tully. "But it won't work. The great thing about Dukakis is that when people hear him, he's not a category." Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), 46, has been running harder and longer than anyone and, by testimony of insiders, ought to win any "Most Improved" award. On the stump, his speeches are sharper, images crisper, timing far better than a year ago. He talks about people's hurt, telling a chilling story about a suicide of a farmer's son -- but then turns to an optimistic finish, a vision of economic growth based on the values of hard work and the spirit of one-for-all. There is a populist streak to his tough-guy talk on trade, and plenty of compassion in his save-the-family-farm legislation.

His opponents privately say his Achilles' heel is an opportunistic voting record that shows him cutting his philosophy to the prevailing winds on everything from abortion to Reaganomics to nuclear-energy policy. Gephardt says he responded to changing circumstances, as any good legislator must. He's trying to position himself as the populist "outsider" to Dukakis' establishment "insider," but his Boy Scout appearance and his insider's re'sume' make that a tall order. His assets are his single-mindedness and tenacity, and his support from about 80 congressional colleagues, who give him an organizational skeleton stretching from coast to coast. Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (Tenn.), 39, was the big winner two weeks ago when Nunn became the most recent Democratic shoe not to drop. It leaves him as the only southerner in the race, the only candidate willing to sometimes talk tough on foreign policy (he alone among Democrats was an early supporter of the Reagan administration's reflagging policy in the Persian Gulf), and the one to try to seem culturally and socially more conservative than the others. Gore doesn't have too much going in Iowa or New Hampshire, and he faces a viability test even in his home region. Since Nunn got out, Gore hasn't been able to cash in with any big-name southern endorsements. The politicians of his region find him attractive, but are skeptical that he can make the long run.

The key question for Gore: If he makes a poor showing in Iowa (Feb. 8) and New Hampshire (Feb. 16), will there be the juice and money to keep his campaign alive into "Super Tuesday" (March 8), when 14 of the 20 contests will be in the South? In 1984, the two southerners in the Democratic field were dead on arrival by the time the primary road forked South. Jesse L. Jackson, 45, seemed to a lot of white Democratic Party leaders in 1984 to be running against them -- their rules, their biases, their way of doing business. This year he has made it clear his targets are the multinational corporations that "merge, purge and submerge," that send jobs and hopes abroad. At times on the trail this year, he seemed so eager to appear nonconfrontational that he's been without his old spark. But in recent months he has become more comfortable with his message and continues to attract large crowds wherever he goes. He has an Iowa operation -- something he was without in 1984. Unless another candidate comes shooting out of the pack in the early states, many insiders believe Jackson is poised to be the leading vote-getter on Super Tuesday, when one-third of all national convention delegates will be up for grabs. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (Colo.), 47, won't officially decide until the end of the month whether she's running, but the direct-mail response has been encouraging, and there's nothing quite like the headiness of going out into the country, offering oneself for the presidency and getting wild cheers and applause. Schroeder's late entry means that some of the activist and feminist support she might otherwise have gotten is locked up, but her distinctiveness in the field assures plenty of free news coverage, so she can run a live-off-the-land campaign. Her main plank is a share-the-burden plan that would force Western allies to pay more toward their defense. She's known for wit and one-liners, but to some, her campaign style has a flippancy and informality that makes her appear to lack the gravity for the office she is seeking. Sen. Paul Simon (Ill.), 58, is the one Democrat who likes to call himself old-fashioned, and he constantly evokes the images and programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S Truman. He's also a committed budget-balancer and fiscal conservative. Mostly, though, his handlers are hoping that his resonant baritone voice, his unslick appearance and his plain-spoken common sense will, in an era of fallen heroes, evoke just the right sense of integrity and decency to capture a disillusioned electorate. He's off to a fast start in Iowa, where he's well-known among his neighbors in the east, has labor support throughout the state and has the active help of former representative Berkley W. Bedell in the west. When he entered the race last spring, there was a tendency by some to dismiss Simon as a bit of a sideshow. He's in the big tent now.

The biggest changes from four years ago in the contours of the road these candidates will travel for the next six months are the proliferation of debates -- more than three dozen are scheduled -- and the bunching of 20 states into Super Tuesday. The debates stand to help everyone -- they all need the exposure -- but seem a particular blessing for Dukakis. He has much more television experience than his rivals, and his "cool," measured delivery, which sometimes leaves him flat in a big room, is suited to the medium.

Super Tuesday stands to help Gore and Gephardt, who have more political support and more room for growth in the South than the others, and Jackson, who has the most solid voter base in the black communities of the region.

That's the easy wisdom about this race -- and quite possibly, the only wisdom. It seems determined to unfold in its own sweet time. "The insiders are always trying to neaten up a presidential race," said New Hampshire Democratic Chairman Joseph Grandmaison. "But 1988 looks like one of those rare years when front-runner status will only be properly awarded after the voters get involved."

He added: "That doesn't mean we all won't play fun and games beforehand, though."