Phil Crane had the night off, but everybody else running for president, as one of the organizers, put it, "was out in the boondocks." Consequently, John Connally, Bob Dole, George Bush, et. al., weren't around to defend themselves last night while everybody made fun of them at the Washington Press Club annual "Salute to Congress."

"Bob Dole is the only man," said Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.), "to come in seventh in a six-man race."

And on George Bush: "He tells you he's done this, and that, and this -- hell, that just shows that man can't hold a job."

Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) got in a few jokes too, some of them on himself. "I knew this would be a friendly group," he said from the podium of the Sheraton Washington, "when I spotted 17 of my vice-presidential choices here."

The group was 1,200 journalists, politicians and familiar faces about Washington who flock to this annual joke fest. Some years the dinner is funny, some years it's not. Ether way, everyone seems to need it on a cold midwinter's night.

Everyone, that is, but Jimmy Carter. He stayed home, but sent regrets. No reason. Like last year, when a White House spokesman said he was just "at the mansion, having dinner."

But the president's gnomes popped up everywhere: Stu Eizenstat, Frank Moore, Jerry Rafshoon, Sarah Weddington, lots of cabinet members, even some former cabinet members like James Schlesinger and Joseph Califano.

If you had been keeping track, you would have noticed a 5-to-1 ratio of Carter people to Kennedy people. "We have six or eight here," lamented Ron Brown, deputy campaign manager for Kennedy. "They probably have 40 or 50."

But back to the jokes. Iowa, and Ronald Reagan's second-place finish, was popular material. "Well, the race is on," said Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), "and Ronald Reagan is no longer beating around the bush."

And in the next breath: "George Bush set the record for the most nights spent in a Holiday Inn. The previous record was set by Mr. and Mrs. John Smith."

There were still other political swipes. A sampling:

"I've heard John Connally is now in favor of my $1,000 plan," said McGovern, referring to his widely ridiculed tax proposal from the 1972 campaign, "as long as it comes in cash."

"If you arrive in Washington and you're under the age of 65, you're considered a presidential candidate," said Udall, "as long as you're not under indictment, detoxification or living in sin.This disease cannot be cured, but as we've seen with George McGovern, it can be controlled."

"John Sears has given up on Ronald Reagan," Udall said. "He wants someone younger, who's good with people, who looks good on TV -- Bert Parks."

Udall, Simpson and McGovern, along with Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-N.J.) were the featured speakers at an event that was hosted by the Women's Press Club until it became the Washington Press Club in recent years. The scene was a crowded sort of circus atmosphere accented by red, white and blue balloons as well as the Marine Corps Band.

And seemingly half of Washington officialdom. The politically inclined were talking about Carter Vs. Kennedy. Some of the nonpolitically inclined didn't care.

"If I heard anything political tonight, it would go in one ear and out the other," said Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Earlier, during the cocktail hour that one Time magazine writer called a "zoo," guests who weren't on the dais got to make their own jokes.Here's one from Dick Schmidt, counsel for the society of Newspaper Editors:

"I hear Amy Carter won a national spelling bee contest," he said. "She was the only one who could spell Chappaquiddick."

Alas, that one was out of earshot of Neil Goldscmidt, the secretary of transportation, who had come for some much-needed laughs.

"There's so little else today that amuses me," he said. "My stack of return-phone-call slips was higher than the rate of my dialing finger." At this point he was asked about the campaign speech that Ted Kennedy gave on Monday.

"He gave a speech?" he responded, apparently genuinely startled. "I missed it. I'm serious.I read Transportation Daily and Road and Track."

Others were well aware of the senator from Massachusetts who's running for president. White House press secretary Jody Powell, for instance. "Now you can have a depate," he said, turning from his bowl of what the menu called "Primary Courses -- Cream of the Crop Mushroom Soup," "where the senator debates his positions of this week with those of the week before."

The response from Dick Drayne, one among the scarce crop of Kennedy staffers at last night's dinner: "President Carter has changed more positions in four years than an acrobatic team. It's pretty amazing. There've been studies done."

As for the Kennedy campaign's financial problems, which have forced most staffers to be taken off the payroll, Drayne added: "Nobody was taken off the payroll. There just isn't one."

At a nearby table was Alfred Kahn, the president's inflation fighter, who, despite a job he oftens likens to the circus employe who shovels elephant manure, always has something pithy to say.

"I try very hard to inject lightness into my life," he said, "Mainly by not confusing myself with God. That's very important."