They say his name with almost the same acid disdain they bestow on the Democrats. Conservatives smile when they say James Baker's name, but it's not a pleasant smile.

"Conservatives unanimously are happy that Jim Baker is going to be out, because we feel Baker had his own agenda, not Ronald Reagan's agenda and not a conservative's agenda," said archconservative Richard Viguerie last night about the White House chief of staff, as of yesterday treasury secretary-designate.

Viguerie was in a crowd where "conservative" wasn't just a description, it's an honorary title. With White House director of public liaison Faith Ryan Whittlesey and right-wing golden boy Lew Lehrman and ERA-foe Phyllis Schlafly and author Arnaud de Borchgrave leading the devoted way, 300 conservatives gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel for the first Lawrence Patton McDonald Memorial Dinner, honoring the Georgia congressman who died in 1983 on Korean Air Lines Flight 007 when it was shot down by Soviet fighters.

At an evening billed as a " 'State of the Union' for the American conservative movement," the conversation ranged from praise for McDonald to love of country to speculation about the latest moves in theWhite House staff shuffle to hatred of the press and back again, and the talk throughout was in the first person plural, as in "We Conservatives."

"Some of the staff switches have been of concern to us," said Kathryn McDonald, widow of the congressman, "but by and large we have come out ahead."

Coming out ahead meant different things to different people.

"Just getting Jim Baker out of the White House is a cause for celebration," said Peter Gemma, dinner organizer and director of the National Pro-Life Political Action Committee.

That was "coming out ahead" for the politically gleeful.

"I think it's good for Don Regan. I think it's good for Jim Baker," said Lehrman. "I think it's good for the White House and I think it's good for the country. Each brings renewal."

That was "coming out ahead" for the politically careful.

"I think it proves the president is clearly in charge," said Whittlesey.

And is there any conservative trepidation over the switch?

"None," she said, fiddling with a scrap of paper. "Absolutely none."

That was "coming out ahead" for someone who had to be at least a little careful.

Many of the recognizable Capitol Hill and administration conservatives didn't show last night. There were a few congressmen and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) made a passing cocktail hour appearance, but the only member of the Senate to make it into the dining room was newly elected Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)

"I didn't know what to expect," he said about the low-turnout of Hill faces. "I'm new in town. I'm here because a lot of these people helped me when no one else would. Most of the business PACs were so busy trying to pick a winner they paid no attention to a challenger, especially a little-known challenger."

It was one of those evenings when the sentiments are so strong they seem to feed on themselves, the speakers booming louder and louder, a speech leading to an introduction leading to a speech leading to an introduction and so on until guests start jumping to their feet in applause and then sneaking out before the ovation is over.

After de Borchgrave complained about the U.S. "mediacrats' " prediliction for turning "disinformation" into "a received idea before being annointed as a factoid in computer data banks," Whittlesey received the "McDonald Memorial Award for Grace Under Fire" for her "outstanding service, publicly and privately, to the conservative cause."

Some, even within the White House, say her service has been a little excessive.

"I knew I had finally made an impact at the White House when the signs on the restrooms were changed, to read: Gentlemen and Crazy Right Winger," she told the crowd.

Whittlesey is expected to be leaving the White House soon, perhaps to resume her job as ambassador to Switzerland, and her imminent departure was a source of sadness for Viguerie, who sat outside the ballroom for most of the dinner, giving interviews to the many mediacrats.

"My gosh, the vast majority are gone," said Vigueurie, of the people he would call "conservative" in the White House. "Judge Clark is leaving. Faith Whittlesey is leaving. Meese is going to Justice. You look around, 'Where are they?' They're just not there.' "

He sighed and moved on to the next interview.