Instead of a rose garden, there were Valentines blooming in the East Room last night, but for Jimmy Carter, the candidate, they all added up to the same thing.

"We thought it was a wonderful time to have you here and tell you how much we care for you," Rosalynn Carter told some 500 guests at a Valentine's Dance she and the president gave.

And while the White House said earlier the occasion was "not political," there were mostly Democrats in the crowd -- and most of them were Carter supporters. It was the second in a serious of parties the Carters have given in recent months, the first a Thanksgiving Dance. Another is scheduled on St. Patrick's Day.

Last night everything coming up was clearly hearts and flowers.

"A couple of years ago the president was made 'Lover of the Year,'" Mrs. Carter told guests who came from 27 states, five of them with primary elections coming up within a month.

He had been selected, she said, "because of that old-fashioned love" that binds families together. "I was very pleased that others recognized the president's talent."

When she introduced him -- "my Valentine" -- he grinningly confided to everyone's delight that "I'm going to dance a few dances. If I do much more I won't be able to live up my reputation."

The Carters were an hour late at their party, coming from the EOB where the president held a nationally televised press conference. Although scrappy on screen as he threw down the gauntlet in his campaign against Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), he clearly did not intend to discuss the details with his guests.

Mrs. Carter, however, later told some visitors she was pleased at the forceful way the president answered Kennedy's criticism of him, both on his handling of the situation in the Persian Gulf region and the campaign.

Party-goers were a mixture of Hill, White House, administration supporters, campaign workers, journalists, lobbyists and political action group representatives.

Carter's congressional liaison Frank Moore just shruggled when asked if the occasion were politcal. "There are a few Republicans here," he said.

There was also Henry Winkler, the Fonz, except that he promptly set admirers straight when the attempted to identify him with his television persona.

"The Fonz is not here tonight," he said, not even the trace of a smile showing. "I am."

With his wife Stacey looking on, Winkler declined to discuss whether he is a Carter supporter because "I never discuss politics -- my life is so public that it's [politics] private."

Rep. Bruce Vento (D-Minn.) said he didn't know whether the party was political but, he observed, "everything is political and having a social rapport is part of the human aspect in Washington." He predicted Carter would do well in the Minnesota caucuses Feb. 26 even though he hasn't gotten out there to campaign.

New Hampshire wasn't on the list of states represented though Carter-Mondale headquarter works had selected a sizeable contingent of supporters from Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Illinois and Massachusetts where primaries are sheduled soon.

"It's obviously a cross section," said Warrne Adler, publisher of Dossier magazine. "Nobody's sure why they're here except that they got an invitation."

The looking around the East Room, he observed: "Maybe this is the Rose Garden."