It seemed more like a presidential primary for Lee Iacocca than a birthday reception for the Statue of Liberty. The Chrysler chairman who wrote a best seller, was on the list of possible running mates for Walter Mondale, just negotiated successfully with the United Auto Workers for a new contract and has led the big push for reconstruction of the Statue of Liberty was now dutifully pumping hands at the Kennedy Center Atrium. And the reception crowd was squeezing the corporate star into corners, with congratulations, autograph requests and handshakes.

"Honey," said a husband to his persistent wife. "Try again when the crowd has thinned."

The crowd never thinned and Iacocca never stopped pumping.

"I'm tired," he said.

"You're doing good things for this country," said yet another well-wisher.

"As the daughter of Irish immigrants, I am so proud," said U.S. ambassador-to-Ireland-to-be Margaret Heckler, gripping Iacocca's hand.

"I just wanted to shake your hand," said another. "This is a proud day."

The day -- last night -- was the 99th birthday of the statue, or The Lady, as Iacocca referred to her in his speech to the Concert Hall audience. The musical entertainment (by the Detroit Symphony) consisted of music by Stravinsky and Dvorak and the premiere of Richard Adler's "The Lady Remembers," an orchestral suite dedicated to Liberty. "Carmen" star Julia Migenes-Johnson sang the vocal part in the suite.

"It was fine," said Walter Mondale, who had watched the show with his wife Joan. "But you've got to give it a little time to be tested."

Of the other subject of the evening, Mondale said, "He's one of the more attractive stars. Look at how well his book is selling. People really admire him. This the statue fund raising is going to be another great victory for him."

"I think it'll go over the $230 million," said Iacocca of the official fund-raising goal set for the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. Of that figure, which will also refurbish the national monuments and the Ellis Island immigration station, $65 million will go for the statue itself, he said.

"Great evening," said Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) to Secretary of the Interior Donald P. Hodel, who had read out a proclamation from President Reagan declaring national centennial festivities for the statue officially open.

"All I did," said Hodel, "was read from the -- "

But Metzenbaum was having none of the secretary's modesty. "You can stumble through that also," he said.

"The tough part's over," said Iacocca of the fund raising, for which the Chrysler Corporate Fund has been the major donor. The fund also underwrote the evening and cohosted the event with the National Park Service.

"Getting the first $100 million was the hard part," he continued, as aides ushered him over to cut a two-tiered birthday cake upon which a mini Statue of Liberty stood. "Now it's running smoothly." And after all this, he said, "I'm going to relax and play a little golf."