"President Carter wanted very much to be here tonight," began White House Press Secretary Jody Powell, pinch-hitting as speaker for his boss at Saturday night's 64th Annual White House Correspondents Association dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel. "After all, he seldom has the occasion to dine with an institution held in lower esteem than . . .

"But actually," Powell continued without finishing that sentence, "he, of course, wanted me to express his regrets. Unfortunately, time does not permit me to say all the things that are regrettable about the White House correspondents."

Despite an introduction by association president Aldo Beckman as "one of the two people who can tell us why the president is not here" - Powell never did explain why Carter had claimed fatigue and cancelled out of Saturday night's bash just two days before. Nor did he tell his audience why the first lady did not stand in for him as has been the custom in past years, although privately Powell noted that, "What is the point of him going to Camp David if Rosalynn is here?"

Carter's absence, however, marked the first time in the dinner's history that neither a president, first lady nor vice president (Mondale is overseas) has not shown up.

And it had its impact. Many reporters said they felt it was a bad move for Carter not to show, even though administration types like public relations adviser Jerry Rafshoon brushed it off. "Why I just don't understand why the president wouldn't want to be in the sun, resting, playing tennis and relaxing when he could be here."

The administration was well represented, including about 15 from the White House, several of whom - who asked not to be quoted by name - said that they felt the president should have attended.

Powell, meanwhile, clearly wasn't relishing his role as substitute. And when he took the podium, it showed. Those expecting a dose of the famous Powell wit got it, although later some reporters said they felt some low-key hostility from Powell, spurred on, no doubt, by the razzling from Beckman, who preceded Powell.

"We didn't learn until last Thursday that he wasn't going to attend," said Beckman, who is Washington bureau chief for The Chicago Tribune, "so we didn't have even time to invite (California Gov.) Jerry Brown.

"Good taste forbids me from reminding Jody who the last president was who wouldn't have dinner with us. One year he flew to Honolulu to avoid us and another year he scheduled a presedential press conference the evening of our dinner - in Phoenix, Ariz. (It was Lyndon Johnson).But this is the first time we have lost a president because he was exhausted by an SEC report."

A big laugh came for Beckman when he observed that "The president has been in office for 15 months and has alre dy scheduled his fourth overseas trip. Since presidents traditionally increase foreign travel when their popularity slips at home, the American people may never see him again."

But later, Powell got his shot. "The president's decision not to be here was really a very claculated political decision. We determined there was no way to appeal to this special-interest group after our attack on the three-martini lunch."

Powell also got off a few lines at the administration's expense when talking about the recent Camp David conference held by Carter for his cabinet and White House staff. "We arrived at the conclusion," said Powell, "that we suffered from an image of indecision. Unfortunately, we couldn't decide what to do about it."

However, after that foray into self deprecation, he once again took the offensive. "He (Carter) was a little upset about a recent Bill Safire column saying that Bob Strauss has been inflation czar fro three days and nothing's cheaper. Bob said that wasn't true . . . what about the Pulitzer Prize?" (Safire has just won a Pulitzer Prize for his New York Times columns on Bert Lance.)

"I like that, Jody," called someone from the audience.

"Well," shot back Powell, "then that's the first thing this administration's done that you've liked."

The evening began with an hour of cocktails before guests moved downstairs to the grand ballroom for dinner - breast of capon cordon bleu, pommes rissolees and bombe glace.

There were, however, a few surprises. Lawyer Charles Kirbo, Carter's mentor from Atlanta, showed up at the behest, he said, of Strauss while Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), generally not one to frequent such events also appeared. Kennedy sat at The Boston Globe table and said that, contrary to recent speculation, he is not seeking the presidency.

"I will not run in 1980." said Kennedy. "I'm going to support Jimmy Carter."

Asked also about his recent publicized friendship with former Olympic skier Suzy Chaffee, Kennedy said, "Miss Chaffee skied at the Winter Olympics (for the handicapped) and at Steamboat Springs for us. It was very nice of her to do so.She's very interested in legislation and I wish her well."

Also on hand was Henry Kissinger who sat at the Time-Life table and reported that "after finishing the first 1,300 pages of my book, the next page will have a verb." Kissinger added he had not read the Nixon memoirs, but was not worried about how he will be portrayed in them. "I always said I couldn't have done it without him," laughed Kissinger, who was in unusually high spirits, "and I'm sure he'll confirm that."

At one point an animated conversation was held in mid-room between Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who said he came to the dinner because "I'm a coward." As to why the press is not invited along on his upcoming China trip, Brezinski chuckled: "We felt the press was so fatigued from the last few trips, that it would be unfair to take them along."

The press corps itself was divided on Carter's no-show. "These dinners are so bad that they finally get good," said veteran Washington watcher Hugh Sidey of Time. "But it always matters a little if the president doesn't show. Once again tonight it seems a separation of groups - the old-timers showed up and the Carter people didn't. Just look at the dais - it's decimated up there . . . a couple of cabinet members and that's it. Is this a message they're giving us?"

The dais included Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Patricia Roberts Harris, and Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall.

Following the speakers and entertainment by singer Jan Olivor, the group headed for several post-parties hosted by, among others, Time-life, The Wall Street Journal and Gannett Newspapers.

Talks generally centered around the tension on the podium and Powell's remarks. "I'm here tonight to provide the subtlety Jody clearly lacked," crached ACTION head Sam Brown in the Time-Life suite.

Another reporter, meanwhile, voiced the feelings of many about Powell. "I wouldn't have wanted to give a speech if the president refused to come."

For his part White House aide Hamilton Jordon kept a very low profile all evening. Removing his black tie as soon as possible after dinner, Jordon headed for The Chicago Tribune suite where, with Budweiser in hand, he spent a subdued evening talking to a constant circle of other guests thronged around him.

However, to some of the younger reporters, Carter's absence Saturday night was merely a precursor of things to come. "Let's face it," said Roy Bode, bureau cheif for The Dallas Times-Herald. "These dinners - the Gridiron - all of them are dinosaur picnics.Everybody came tonight to get their backs slapped and nobody slapped them.

"I can't fathom us younger ones in 20 years going to these things. Carter not being here should be telling us that the Washington press corps doesn't have to live vicariously anymore. The press doesn't have to get its importance through Jimmy Carter or any other president for that matter."

Richard E. Meyer and Michael J. Sniffen of the Washington bureau of the Associated Press shared the $500 Merriman Smith memorial award and the $1,000 Worth Bingham award for a story they did Aug. 26 which disclosed that Bert Lance has used the same stock as collateral for two different loans.

George Antham and James Risser of The Des Moines Register shared the $1,000 Raymond Clapper memorial award for a story disclosing production of unsanitary meat for the school lunch program.

Second prize in the Merriman Smith contest went to Carl P. Leubsdorf of the The Baltimore Sun, cited for consistent excellence in presidential reporting. The Raymond Clapper second prize of $500 went to Walter Pincus of The Washington Post for reporting on the neutron bomb controversy. The award were presented at the correspondents dinner.