Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), the president candidate who barely registers in public opinion polls, was just glad he had someone to eat with.

"I understand John Conally's eating alone up in New York," he chortled, casting grateful eyes at a crop of rather rich Republicans last night. "At least I've got some people around."

But not as many as he had hoped. In fact, last night's Republican fundraiser in Washington fell far short of its goal, attracting 260 people instead of the anticipated 400.

But it still beat Connally's dinner, held simultaneously in New York. There, 180 people showed up despite earlier estimates that predicted a turnout of 750.

Last week, GOP leaders said they expected $1.5 million from the five $1,000-a-plate dinners, held in Houston, Detroit and Chicago as well as New York and Washington. Yesterday afternoon, the figure had been revised to $1 million.And by time waiters paraded a flaming dessert into the ballroom of the Washington Hilton last night, Republicans were trying to act happy with an estimated $750,000.

"Oh, I suppose we'd like to raise $10 million," said a bright Carla Hills, the chair of the dinner who, like everybody else, took the attitude that any money is good money.

But a few abandoned the Pollyanna approach and tried to analyze what happened.

"It's a combination of things," said Allan Levey, a co-chair of the dinner and chair of the Maryland Republican party. All the Republican candidates for president are asking the same people for money that the Republican National Committee is."

Bob Cohen, who organized the national fund-raiser also hinted that perhaps Dole was not the best draw.

Dole was the featured speaker at the Washington dinner, and spent much of his allotted time taking swipes at the Democrats. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is scheduled to announce his presidential candidacy today, was a favorite.

"It just so happens I've obtained an advance copy of Teddy's text," Dole joked. "I thought you might appreciate a preview.

"My differences with President Cater are not personal," Dole said, pretending to be reading from the fake Kennedy speech. "I think he's a decent, moral man, even if he is into whips. I won't mention the fact that most of his campaign pledges, or that Ham Jordan makes my night life look like a Doris Day movie."

Wrapping up, Dole told the crowd, "If you think presidential inexperience has been expensive, wait until you get the bill for Kennedy nostalgia."

In New York, Connally picked up the same theme.

"What Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter already are doing to each other is more than we could have dreamed of doing to either of them a few months ago," Connally said. "It all adds up to opportunity unlimited for Republicans in 1980."

Connally's recent statement on the Middle East was said by some Republican Jews who were offended by his position. Last night, Connally denied this.

"I had nothing to do with this dinner," he said. "They asked me to speak."

Speaking in Houston was retired NATO commander Gen. Alexander Haig, a potential candidate. Sen. Howard Baker, an official candidate, spoke in Chicago, and former CIA director George Bush, another declared candidate, was in Detroit.

Former California gov. Ronald Reagan, who is to announce his candidacy next week, didn't participate in the fund-raiser. "Logistics," explained a Republican National Committee spokesman, saying that Reagan was at a $10,000-per-person fund-raider last night in Los Angeles.

In Washington, besides those Republicans who could afford to spend $1,000 for filet mignon and carrots and those invited congressmen who weren't asked to, was Pat Paulsen, the comedian who got 1,272 votes in the New Hampshire primary in 1972.

"Now wait a minute, don't laugh," he said during the before-dinner reception. "We only spent about $8,000 of my own money. If we had spent $1 million like Nixon, I would be your president today."

Paulsen, in addition to lightening up a rather stiff reception ("There's a lot of Republicans I like," he confessed. "I see nothing wrong with talking with them -- are they some sort of orgs or something?") also provided the after-dinner entertainment.

"Watergate was a mistake," he said. "And according to Miss Lillian, so was Jimmy."

And then he one-lined a little later: "I just got the cast off my vasectomy."

Listening to all this were Sens. Jacob Javits of New York, who said he is "friendly" to the candidacy of Baker and "didn't approve of" Connally's Middle East remarks; Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland, who said Republicans do too have a sense of humor; and William S. Cohen of Maine, who supported Baker in last week's straw poll of the Maine delegation that produced a surprise winner in Bush. "Howard was spread too thin," Cohen said. "and it showed."

Also around were hotel moguls J. Willard Marriott junior and senior. Senior said he's supporting Connally for president.

"He looks like a president, too," he said. "Big, tall and handsome."

Others spotted in the crowd were Sen. John Warner from Virginia (without his wife Elizabeth Taylor, who was in Taiwan) and Donald Shea, a Roman Catholic priest who privately joked that God is a Republican.