The Democrats moved a little closer to the Republican jugular last night as 1,500 of them, drinking and eating and running behind schedule in true party fashion, squashed into the Washington Hilton for their annual fund-raising gala. With unemployment at almost 10 percent and the Commerce Department's index of leading economic indicators down nearly one percent, Democrats, the party out of power, boldly announced in the words of Walter Mondale, "It's going to be a big Democratic year -- you can feel it in this room tonight."

This year's gala was marked by Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. The current president had riled everyone by having all of Capitol Hill over to the White House the same evening, thus putting Democratic congressmen invited to both parties in a quandary.

"This has been planned for eight months," complained Democratic National Committee Chairman Charles Manatt. "The White House barbecue was planned 13 days ago. The College Young Republicans were going to picket our dinner. Richard Richards the Republican National Committee chairman gave a press conference the day before our National Party Conference. Tacky, tacky, tacky."

The former president, appearing at his first national Democratic event since his landslide defeat, got considerably better reviews.

"I made some mistakes while I was president," Carter said in a brief speech before dinner, "but even our critics would admit that we never ducked a controversial issue and we did not spend four years blaming our mistakes on our predecessors."

Carter was clearly a hit as he worked the labyrinth of pre-dinner reception rooms, shaking hands and kissing cheeks with the style of a politician who has spent decades of his life doing just that.

"We've missed seeing you," said a fan.

"I'll be out more," he replied.

"How was the fishing in Canada?"

"It was beautiful. Rosalynn and I both caught very large salmon."

"One time at a congressional dinner you kissed me and I didn't wash my face for a year."

Carter, not missing a beat, kissed her again. He also looked at baby pictures, told a woman his mother was just fine and, on a more serious subject, said the incident in which a U.S. Marine was killed while defusing a bomb in Lebanon was "obviously a tragedy and I'm very sorry it happened. I just hope it was an accident."

Carter's appearance -- and political timing -- generally pleased the DNC leadership, who've insisted that they have always invited him to party functions in the past. But with the exception of regional events, including a Maryland fund-raiser given by Democratic moneyman Nathan Landow earlier this year (which Manatt called "Landow's bar mitzvah"), Carter has declined invitations until now.

"I think he's probably got an inner clock," said Eugene Eidenberg, the DNC's executive director. "He probably has an instinct for knowing when it's the right time for a former president to come out."

The evening was also a chance for the men who are thinking about running for president, called "hopefuls" in party parlance, to wander through a hotel of rich Democrats, most of whom paid $1,000 each to be there. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) made a quick drop-by before flying off to Boston, Mondale was given a pre-reception and Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) adopted a careful too-soon-to-tell stance. But he did say that "when the president keeps saying that it's all our fault because of the sins of the past, nobody's going to believe that."

Perhaps one of the happiest men in the room was Bob Strauss, the former DNC chairman, who is always his best in a room full of Democrats. He's pretty good with Republicans too. Strauss, for one, was not about to seize on the White House barbecue as a chance to attack the incumbent, instead adopting a more-with-it-than-thou approach.

"Much ado about nothing," he said. "White Houses just screw up things, whether they're Democrats or Republicans."

It was hard to tell how many Democrats had gone to the White House instead of the Democratic gala or even those who had gone to both. The party officials said that the Hill's Democratic leadership had sent out a letter sternly discouraging attendance at the White House. But a rough head count turned up a healthy crop of Democratic congressmen, and since the Hill was in session late, many had just skipped the early evening barbecue and gone to the gala.

"I didn't want to go to that phoney's place tonight," said Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.).

After dinner everybody saw a short medley of Democratic television ads projected onto a giant screen on stage. Then there was a performance by comedian Rich Little, who imitated Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Here's how Little/Reagan explained Reaganomics:

"Suppose your mom bakes a big blueberry pie. Now that pie represents the wealth of this country. Now, take that pie and divide it in half. The top half is for defense spending. The bottom half is for domestic programs. And the other half is for the national debt."

Little, who performed at Reagan's inaugural gala at the Capital Centre, explained later that "I'm a Canadian and I can't vote, so I sit on the fence. I'll probably go back and do something for the Republicans as well."

Does he have any preferences for the next president? Without hesitation, he said Kennedy "has a great voice." But take note: He's working on Mondale, too.