"I wish we were meeting tonight to celebrate the total triumph of our cause," Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) told the crowd Saturday night at the first annual Rose Dinner of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund. "We can't do that tonight, but it will come, it will come, I guarantee it. We will have achieved the passage of legislation that will end the slaughter of the most innocent . . . denied the right to love and be loved by a society that has been mesmerized by misplaced values for too long."

Helms joined Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and several hundred opponents of abortion at the dinner at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill marking the 10th anniversary of the landmark Roe vs. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. Earlier, an estimated 26,000 had marched on the Capitol to protest abortion.

And when Helms was through, the crowd got its turn, serenading the senator after March for Life president Nellie J. Gray presented him with the group's first annual Life Award for Outstanding Service. The song was "Hello, Jesse!" (to the tune of "Hello, Dolly!"): Just feel the room swaying 'Cause we're all praying For the Human Life Amendment right away So, here's our hand, Jesse You're our man, Jesse We need this song to save our families.

The group has been lobbying for the "Respect Human Life Act," introduced by Hyde and endorsed Friday by President Reagan. The bill would prohibit federal funds for Medicaid abortions for the poor, coverage of abortions in health insurance plans for federal employes, research on abortion and foreign population control programs that promote abortion.

There was much grumbling at the dinner over a report on the "NBC Nightly News" by correspondent Carl Stern, which they said underestimated the crowd for the march. "He was wrong, but the media always underestimates crowds, for us especially. They hate to face the issue," said Anne Higgins, special assistant to the president and director of correspondence at the White House. Higgins, a 10-year March for Life veteran, worked full time for the "pro-life" movement in between working for the Ford and Reagan administrations. "It's a genocidal issue, I'm convinced of that. All these people who want to get rid of the minorities support abortion."

Helms, in his speech to the crowd, said, "On the afternoon of January 22, 1973, I think everybody here knew, as Roosevelt put it, that this was a day that will live in infamy . . . This nation has been on a steady downward slide since 1973 . . .

"The trouble with our country today is our major media, our politicians and the people supposed to be our leading thinkers have allowed themselves to become saturated with intellectual dishonesty," Helms told the crowd. "They are interested only in the rights of atheists and agnostics . . . they have scorned our plea that the insane Supreme Court decision of 1973 be reversed. They wear 'Save the Whales' on their lapels, but they say it's okay to kill the babies.

"This fellow Phil Donahue had me on his talk show the other day," Helms said, eliciting loud boos from the audience. "He literally had me for breakfast, had a stacked audience and everything. Well, they called me the other day and tried to get me back for another dose. And I said, fine, Mr. Donahue. If you will run a 10-minute film of an abortion, we can devote the next 50 minutes to the subject. I haven't heard from them yet!"

Many at the banquet traveled far at their own expense to lobby. Mr. and Mrs. Robert Jacobs of Gorham, Kan., came by bus with a delegation of 41, all of whom wore large sunflower lapel pins. "We have to get people to take care of our business, our cattle. So it's a sacrifice," Robert Jacobs said. "But there's a purpose. It's not stopping at abortion. Down the road is euthanasia and sterilization and who knows what's next. The small people are starting to do this, so people in government are starting to listen and do something."

Following an opening prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance was recited. After "with liberty and justice for all," several in the crowd loudly amended "born or unborn," to which many responded "Amen."

Hyde's wife, Jeanne, and the Rev. Anthony Zimmerman, executive director of the Japan Family Life Association, introduced Higgins to Masakumi Murakami, a member of Japan's House of Councilors, who brought an antiabortion delegation of three from Japan.

Zimmerman told presidential aide Higgins that Murakami wished to invite Nancy Reagan to Japan. "She wouldn't have to focus just on abortions," Zimmerman said. "She could talk about the whole family life issue. We had Mother Teresa over. With the woman-power of those two, just think of what could be done."

"My friend from Japan, you send a lot of Toyotas over here," Helms joked in his speech, looking toward Murakami. "Will you swap us a couple of Toyotas for Lowell Weicker and Bob Packwood?" March for Life president Gray then moved Helms down the dais for the cameras. "You've just seen the impossible," Helms said. "She moved me to the left."