Secretary of State George Shultz last night called her "steadfast."

To U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, she was "indomitable."

Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker said she has "backbone" and that he always listens to her.

And her press secretary swore that she's been offered the American presidency three times, once even by Walter Cronkite.

It was probably inevitable then at the British Embassy, where she was being awarded the Winston Churchill Foundation Award, that Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would be compared to Winston Churchill.

"Like Winston Churchill, she is known for her courage, conviction, determination and willpower. Like Churchill she thrives in adversity," said former U.S. ambassador to Denmark John L. Loeb Jr., who as president of the foundation presented the award.

"No one, least of all a conservative prime minister, can receive an award that bears his name without an abiding sense of humility," Thatcher responded, recalling that Churchill was still a member of the House of Commons when she first entered that chamber nearly 25 years ago. "I remember him then: small, a little deaf, a little hunched, yet towering above the rest of us as he has done ever since."

So it went for 120 high-powered American and British guests, including Churchill's grandson, Winston S. Churchill, who dined on a menu of "Atlantic terrine," "noisettes of lamb Winston Churchill" and "sorbet Margaret."

In addition to Shultz, who sat on Thatcher's left; Kirkpatrick, who sat on British Ambassador Sir Oliver Wright's right; and Volcker, location unknown, there was a cross-section of clout from Foggy Bottom, Capitol Hill and the White House. There was also Thatcher's husband, Denis, who shared the receiving line with the prime minister, Loeb and the Wrights.

Thatcher didn't waste a moment of the opportunity afforded her to continue her eloquent daylong barrage against the Soviet Union that began on the morning network news shows and continued through her lunch with President Reagan.

"The radical proposals for disarmament now on the table come from the West. It is the response from Moscow which is deficient," she said, referring to Soviet President Yuri Andropov's accusation that Washington is pursuing a "militaristic course."

Thatcher said, "This week we have again seen genuine proposals from the West preemptorily rejected . . . some may recoil at the thought of negotiating with men whose theories and actions have been responsible for so much suffering. Yet the character of modern weapons, not only nuclear but conventional, obliges us to do so."

Over cocktails served by waiters from silver trays, Kirkpatrick called Andropov's reaction to President Reagan's overtures on arms control "intemperate," "very threatening" and "terribly nonresponsive."

She said that in New York "the interesting question of the season is why Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko decided not to attend the U.N. General Assembly." It may have something to do with Soviet internal politics, Kirkpatrick said, and speculated that a struggle over succession continues. There are any number of "interesting straws in the wind that suggest it," she said.

"It's always possible that Andropov might decide to come to New York himself," she said. "Instead of giving their speech when they were expected to, the Soviets' ambassador applied for an extention to October 4 without giving any reason why. So who's coming on October 4?"

Guests roamed in and out of two elegantly appointed drawing rooms and along the marble-pillared corridor where a life-size portrait of Queen Elizabeth II gazed down on them. They included Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.), presidential assistant Michael K. Deaver, Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, former ambassador Averell Harriman (a previous Churchill award recipient), former ambassador to Britain Anne Armstrong and New Yorkers Brooke Astor and Marietta Tree.

There was also U.S. Ambassador to Britain John J. Louis Jr., who said he had been "a little bit surprised" to learn this month that he was being recalled as ambassador. Louis said that even though he was vacationing in Florida during the 1982 Falklands crisis, he was in constant touch with the State Department. He described himself as getting "bad advice" about when he should return to London.

"I was told to get ready to come to Washington to join Secretary of State Haig when he goes to London. I was called the day he was to leave and told to get on the plane to Washington.

"I packed my bags, was about ready to get in a taxi to go out to the airport when I got a call saying, 'Haig has left. If you come by commercial, you'll be chasing him all the way to Buenos Aires. Stay where you are,' " Louis said.

During the after-dinner remarks, any feminists in the crowd might have considered Loeb's tribute to Thatcher as the ultimate compliment, since he did not mention her sex as having set her apart from her political predecessors.

"In the long line of prime ministers, from Robert Walpole, the first prime minister in British history, through such historic names as Pitt and Peel, Disraeli and Gladstone, Lloyd George, Balfour and Churchill, Mrs. Thatcher stands alone as the only one to reach 10 Downing Street from the ranks of"--and here Loeb paused for effect before he added--"science."

Thatcher took her degree in natural science from Oxford University, and later worked as a research chemist. Her scientific background, Loeb said, was especially pertinent because the Churchill foundation was created to encourage scientific and technological cooperation between the United States and Britain.

As a memorial to Churchill, Britain set up a new college at Cambridge in 1959 devoted primarily to science and technology. That same year a group of Americans established the Churchill foundation, which administers scholarships and a fellowship program.

"The young Churchill scholars can only be described as dazzling in their ability and promise," said Loeb. "And the caliber of the Churchill fellows can best be indicated by the fact that eight of them have won Nobel Prizes."