A galaxy of Republican stars, including most of the party's presidential contenders, gathered last night to pay tribute to the late Nelson Rockefeller, a man whose ambition to lead that party had been rebuffed in his lifetime.

The Republicans also were predicting great things for the GOP in 1980, unabashedly delighted at recurrent squabbling among their Democratic cousins.

Former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, who headed the tribute, said that if Rockefeller were present, "what a marvelous time he would have had . . . he would have been here since early this morning, rearranging the tables, changing the seating lists, choosing the music . . . and making a few suggestions for rebuilding the ballroom."

Speaking to the crowd of 1,100 formally dressed Republicans whose $1,000 a-plate contributions netted the GOP over $1 million, Kissinger, a longtime Rockefeller friend and protege, said the former vice president stood for "the unfettered spirit" and called him "my gallant friend."

In a moving tribute, former president Gerald Ford told the Republicans, "My vice president may be the best vice president anybody ever had. The best decision I ever made as president was to name Nelson vice president. My worst mistake was not making better use of his total dedication." Ford asked Rockefeller to step aside in favor of Dole in the '76 campaign.

Kissinger, speaking in a low voice that the audience had to strain to hear, told the Republicans gathered at the Washington Hilton that Rocky "would have been so proud that all of you came, and especially that Barry Goldwater was honorary chairman."

Goldwater, who defeated Rockefeller for the GOP nomination in 1964, said, "I always thought this man would have made a great president of the United States."

Presidency future as well as presidency past was much on the minds of the contributions, who included candidates Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Sen. Howard Baker, Sen. Robert Dole and Rep. Philip Crane.

Asked for his thoughts on the dump Carter movement set afloat this week by some House Democrats, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) stated "I'm not a Democrat. I don't give a damn what they do. If they don't dump him, we will."

Former CIA director George Bush, this week's prime attention-getter with his 39.6 percent showing in a straw vote among guests at an Iowa Republican dinner, said he didn't want to read too much into those results, "Thank heaven for the people I have in Iowa who are willing to stick their necks out," he said.

"It shows that if you buy enough dinner tickets you can expect the vote," said Dole. "I represent the poor people. They don't go to $50-a-ticket dinners."

Reagan, looking remarkably unwrinkled, said it didn't bother him in the least that some critics thought him too old to run in 1980.

"If that's all they can find to talk about, they're not paying attention to real issues," Reagan said.

He appeared delighted at the turn of events on the Democratic front. "Whichever way it turns out we can stand by and enjoy a good fight. It's good to see somebody else fighting for a change," he said.

Ford, describing his job for the evening as "scoutmaster with the eager beaver patrol" introduced presidential hopefuls in the crowd as each of the filmed tributes to Rockfeller was flashed on a giant screen. When it was Reagan's turn, Ford got a little mixed up. "Gov. Rockefeller," he began, "my friend Ron, will you stand up?"

Ford said he was encouraged by the number of GOP candidates as it proved to him that in 1980 the Republican nomination was worth going after. And he predicted that the next president "most likely" was right there in the ballroom, "quiet possibly sitting at your table."

Even so, said Ford, careful to leave all options open, "I'm taking no sides and making no endorsements. They are all my friends."

On the presidency in general, Ford mused that Americans "are funny people, we don't start appreciating our presidents until after they leave office. While they are in office, all we notice is what they have done wrong. In 1979," he said, "that is pretty much a full-time job."

And taking another jab at Carter, Ford said, "If a Democratic president can't get as much from the Democratic Congress as I did, then we better change the Congress, too."

And Rep. Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan, cochairman with Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania of the House and Senate dinner committee, predicted "a Republican Congress a-coming."

"It's no longer a question of it we'll have a Republican majority in the Senate," said Sen. Charles Percy, "but when."

During the reception, while most of the candidates held mini-press conferences as squads of television cameras flitted from one to the other, Sen. Baker and his wife, Joy, stood to the side almost unnoticed.

Asked why he wasn't angling for some television footage, Baker replied, "It'd just get left on the cutting room floor."

The tribute included a 10-minute film showing scenes of Rockefeller in action from a sepia-toned clip of what appeared to be a Rockefeller home movie to a delightful exchange with a student heckler during his days as governor of New York. Rockefeller's wife, Happy, and his brothers Lawrence and David were in the crowd seated at a table adjacent to former President Ford.

Kissinger called Mrs. Rockefeller to the stage, while the band struck up "I Want to be Happy." He presented her with a limited-edition engraving of her late husband.

"What can I say about the relationship of a man to his wife?" Kissinger asked. "All I can say is Nelson had the great fortune to live with a woman he loved very much and who loved him. And all of us who knew him were uplifted by their friendship and their devotion and by what we knew they meant to each other."

Mrs. Rockefeller, wearing a mamoth ruby, diamond and sapphire necklace, told the crowd "All I can say is that Nelson gave so much of himself to everyone and I know he would be very pleased tonight."

Earlier, seated at the table with her Rockefeller in-laws, the Kissingers, Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois and Goldwater, she was asked what she thought of the occasion being given in her husband's honor.

She paused, then countered the question with one of her own: "Do you know Sen. Goldwater?"

"Are you touched by the occasion?"

Again a pause. "It's a tribute to my husband's soul, of course," she said. CAPTION: Picture 1, Gerald R. Ford; by Linda Wheeler; Picture 2, Ronald Reagan; by Linda Wheeler; Picture 3, Sen. and Mrs. Robert Dole; by Linda Wheeler; Picture 4, Henry Kissinger with Happy Rockefeller; by Linda Wheeler