The Des Moines Register, departing from a tradition of not endorsing candidates before Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses, in its Sunday editions endorsed Sens. Dole and Paul Simon (D-Ill.) for their parties' 1988 presidential nominations.

The four-member editorial board said the decision between Republican candidates was difficult because Dole and Vice President Bush presented an almost equal choice. "The clincher," the editors said, "is that Dole seems to sense what the nation needs . . . and the senator's record on {domestic} issues indicates he could deliver."

The board criticized Bush's role in the Iran-contra affair, saying his applying for a job as head of foreign policy is "a little like the guy who proposed the Edsel applying for the presidency of Ford . . . {and} there are too many unanswered questions about . . . what he would do as president."

On the Democratic side, the editors said Simon is best-qualified of the seven candidates because of his unwavering record "capsulized in his one-liner: 'I'm not a neo-anything; I'm a Democrat.' "

The paper said the Democratic Party "would not need to apologize" if any one of six of its leading candidates got the presidential nomination. "The exception is the only celebrity, Gary Hart," the Register said. "Name recognition is about all he has going for him . . . . "