"The thing that drives me nuts," said the chairman of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, one of several Calfornia counties where gas rationing went into effect at midnight, "is they sent me here to make a presentation to the Department of Energy. But the Department of Energy is not convinced that there is an energy crisis."

Rod Diridon paused, watching his senator-California Democrat Alan Cranston-shake some of the nearly 500 hands being thrust at him throughout the evening. Cranston was at the tail end of the receiving line where six members of Jimmy Carter's Cabinet were being featured at a botanic Gardens reception of the Democratic Congressional Dinner Committee last night. Among the six Cabinet absentees was the Department of Energy's James Schlesinger.

"I cant't get anywhere near Schlesinger," Diridon continued plaintively.

"You note he's not here tonight."

Which may have been wise. In a hothouse full of Democrats gearing up for 1980, energy proved to be an even hotter topic than what one guest coyly called "the Democratic alternative-they never say who it is but the initials are EMK."

Diridon saw a lesson for Carter in Jerry Brown's handling of the California gasoline crisis. "I've always supported Jimmy Carter but I can tell you that Governor Brown responded very quickly."

Kentucky's Sen. Wendell H. Ford, member of the Senate Energy Committee which yesterday by a 9-7 vote moved Carter's 6th rationing proposal out of committee and onto the floor, said, "The president can use Jerry Brown to get his program across," not learn from him." Ford voted against the Carter plan "reluctantly because I think the administration has really tried. But they just can't give the agricultural priority that's necessary."

Cranston said, "We've got to have rationing, but I don't know how we'll do it" and in between handshakes, took a poll of how colleagues said they were going to vote today on Carter's energy plan. "Fifty-fifty," Cranston decided.

Just in case guests weren't sure, cocktail napkins helped remind them that "The Democrats are Having a Party." The reception was for 255 members of the Democratic House and Senate Finance Council who pay $1,500 a year to "advise" Democratic members of Congress. Also invited was anybody else who bought a table ($10,000) at tonight's $1,000-a-plate 16th Annual Democratic Congressional dinner, where the president will speak.

Pamela Harrison, who co-chaired last night's party with Salt Lake City businessman John G. McMillian, said she agreed to do it "because when Bob Strauss gives you a sales pitch there's nothing you can say except 'yes'."

A Dallas businessman called Strauss the "most viable factor Carter has, the man he looks to for all his appointments and decisions." Strauss sharing the limelight of the receiving line with the secretaries of Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Treasury and Interior, was the picture of Texas humility.

"We're going to get this trade legislation because of three things- the Republicans in Congress, the Democrats in Congress and because the president is tough and has been hanging in there when he could have cut and run."

Seymour Fabrick, a California shoe manufacturer, was there, telling people that Ted Kennedy "can make you jump even if your feet hurt" and predicting that he will be the Democrats' candidate in 1980 "because the people will demand it."

Henry Rose, a Dallas businessman, however, said he would back John Connally-"a lot of Democrats will."

At least two of Carter's Cabinet said they stood ready to hit the campaign trail when and if their candidate called. "Eight million more people are working today than when he took office," said Labor's Ray Marshall in a preview of possible campaign rhetoric.

"Everybody seems to be critical of the president's energy plan," said Interior's Cecil Andrus, "but nobody's got guts enough to come up with their own." CAPTION: Picture, Averell Harriman, left, his wife, Pamela, and Robert Strauss; by Joe Heiberger