"In 1976, when Bob Dole ran for vice president, the experts said Bob had the image of hatchet man of the Republican Party," said former Michigan representative Jack McDonald last night. "What the experts didn't realize was Bob Dole had to be the hatchet because Jerry Ford would have missed."

The liberal loyalists in the audience at the Capitol Club groaned, but some did manage to spit out at least a chuckle or two. And with that, McDonald introduced the guest of honor and recipient of the Ripon Society's Republican of the Year award, making Dole the seventh member of Congress to be honored since the liberal GOP group was organized 21 years ago.

Former attorney general John Mitchell once called the Ripons a bunch of "little juvenile delinquents," but Bob Dole was loving it.

Ripon, the brainchild of three Harvard students who thought the GOP was too staid, is named after the Wisconsin town that was the birthplace of the Republican Party.

"We are not strong Reagan supporters," said Jayne Hart, former executive director of the organization. "The administration sees us as a thorn in their side."

Which raised the question: Why Bob Dole, somewhat of a Reagan loyalist? John Lofton of the Conservative Digest, who was in the crowd following Dole with a tape recorder, certainly wanted to know. And Dole poked his notorious acerbic wit at Lofton but--of course--never answered the question.

Former secretary of transportation William Coleman tried. "Bob Dole, as much as anyone, is responsible for renewal of the Voting Rights Act. He was instrumental in coming up with the compromise. Food programs are very important for the poor of the country, and Bob has been very effective in pushing those programs."

About 175 guests paid $200 each for Cornish hen, carrots and sherbet. It was the society's first major fundraiser and it netted more than $25,000. "A small amount by Washington fundraising standards," said Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), chairman of the group.

In the end, Dole deviated somewhat from his usual comic relief and told guests what they came to hear. "I want to rebuild the Republican Party," he said. "I want to see more black Americans become Republicans. There is a gender gap and we're going to close it."

He got a standing ovation.