Vice President George Bush called it the "iron finger." Rep. Jim Leach joked that the sculpture symbolized not the end of Amtrak but unfulfilled dreams. The award went along with much handshaking, clapping and two standing ovations as the Ripon Society saluted Bush as the 1985 Republican of the Year last night at the Hyatt Regency.

And last night the Ripons had good reason to honor Bush. His presence and speech helped the moderate Republican society raise close to $250,000, from $500-a-seat tickets and tables sold to corporate sponsors at the dinner, said Ripon treasurer Rick Kessler. "We raised money hand over fist."

The party wasn't as happy about Congress' performance.

"I'm not too optimistic about how much Congress is going to get done before it recesses," said Bush, between flashbulbs and hugs. "But I know the people want the deficit down."

Leach (R-Iowa), national chairman of Ripon, was blunter. "The American people will be profoundly disappointed. The Congress is like a kindergarten in a hurry to go out to recess without getting their work done. Come to think about it, it's an insult to kids to compare them with Congress."

Leach, on his way into the VIP reception, said, "This is the most successful event in Ripon history. And it's the first time the Ripon Society has been out of debt in a decade and a half. I think it shows that the country is crying for pragmatism in government, and the Ripon Society symbolizes that approach."

Bush appeared at the VIP reception in good time to shake hands, have his suntan admired ("The core of it is that weekend in Maine," he said), kiss a number of women (his wife was not along), and write down Mary Louise Smith's Des Moines telephone number ("he had it wrong," said Smith). The general reception across the hall had something the VIP didn't -- fruit to dip in chocolate fondue to console nongilded guests for not being able to shake the vice president's hand.

Smith, Republican chairman in the 1970s and a chairwoman of the Civil Rights Commission, called the Ripon "Issues '85" seminar, held all day yesterday, "magnificent." Like most at the VIP reception, she was still talking about the big issues before the party.

"We have to go back to our heritage," she said. "The Republican Party was founded to oppose slavery; we were the first to have a woman's plank." As for herself, after 20 years on the committee, "I'm devoting my time to issues I think are important: freedom of choice, equality, and we must go strong for the Equal Rights Amendment. We mustn't let it get away."

As the 443 guests (15 to 20 percent of them from out of town) began to file into the dinner, Ripon president Ken Grosberger said, "We had 52 congressmen here. It didn't hurt that Congress was still in session. The vice president has been turning out crowds all over the country. His popularity indicates the broadening of the party. There's more to the Republicans than the right wing."

Dinner chairman Jack McDonald said in introducing Leach that he "has more than once dipped into his pocket to be sure the Ripon telephone bill was paid." And he added, "This is the biggest Ripon event because Bush is one of the most respected people here and elsewhere."

Bush spoke before the dinner was served, instead of afterward, in what is fast becoming a trend of delivering the message when people are still unsated and awake.

He called for the Republican party to adopt "an agenda for opportunity. The biggest question is where do we go from here and how. The biggest problem is to get control of the deficit. We've learned that the deficit counts and we must do something about it. People are determined to reduce the deficit by less spending, not more taxes. People want fairness and simplification in the tax reform. I hope we can do something about it this September."

And he ended his speech by promising the Republicans, "There is room for all kinds of ideas in the party. If we can get along with our agenda of opportunity for all Americans, we will achieve the majority status for the party through the next century."

He shook hands with the head table, took his Cor-Ten steel sculpture by Beverly Pepper of Iowa, and left as the fruit cup was served.