When it comes to humor, as Sen. Bill Bradley proved last night, there really may be something to being a noncandidate.

The seven current democratic presidential contenders were front and center at the Sheraton Washington, offering up their wit in a black-tie "roast" of Bradley -- the man who would not run. It was their first time together on the same stage, and they tweaked and competed and postured with a vengeance. But in the end it was Bradley -- generally not noted for his levity -- who out-roasted them all.

After standing at the microphone in silence for what seemed like an eternity, Bradley wrapped up the evening by saying he had thought long and hard about what he wanted to say -- whether he really wanted to be a third rate comedian -- and had decided he valued his time more than that.

"I mean," he said, "who cares that Michael Dukakis' idea of a good time is straightening out his sock drawer?

"Does it matter that Paul Simon is to bow ties what Imelda Marcos is to shoes?

"Or that Al Gore is not allowed to stay up past ten?

"I thought I wasn't going to tell any jokes. But then I thought of Bruce Babbitt ... The only time I have charisma is when I stand up next to Bruce Babbitt. To be called dull by him is like being called forgetful by Ronald Reagan."

The crowd roared.

The evening was an early opportunity for the candidates to show off, so they all came primed to preen. Biden. Gore. Jackson. Babbitt. Dukakis. Gephardt. Simon. And the political press, eager for a glimpse of this dress rehearsal, almost outnumbered the guests.

But more often than not the jokes were too long, the timing was off, and much of the material had little to do with Bill Bradley. If this was any indication of what's ahead, it may be a long 18 months.

About 1,200 people showed up for the fundraising dinner organized by Independent Action. Founded by Rep. Morris Udall, and currently chaired by Sen. Tom Harkin, the political action committee was expected to raise $250,000 at last night's dinner. The money will go to House and Senate races.

As usual, Jesse Jackson was trailed by crowds and bathed in a flood of television lights.

"I have a complex about telling jokes," he said, as he moved through the cocktail party. "It's taken me this long to be taken seriously."

In some ways, the theme of the evening was "Let us give thanks." Bradley, a low-key and well-respected legislator, has resisted considerable pressure to enter the race, saying his "internal clock" ruled against it. And whenever the subject of a Bradley campaign came up, you could almost hear the collective sigh of relief in the ballroom.

"Bill Bradley belongs in high places," said Jackson. "The Senate for four more years."

"I know people out there think you're too dull to run for president," said Joe Biden. Then, with a pause: "Bill, they're right."

The evening's humorous kick-of came from AnneRichards, state treasurer of Texas.

"These seven candidates have been reduced to doing anything to get attention," she said. "Well, Babbitt rode a bike across Iowa and if he gets one picture in the Cedar Rapids Gazette we'll be seeing Dukakis doing the same on a skateboard, Simon on a pogo stick, Jackson walking on water, Biden in a self-propelled hot air balloon, Gephardt in a milk truck. Gore wanted to take the car, but his daddy wouldn't let him."

The candidates also resorted to the well-worn self-deprecatory mode. Biden, reminding the audience that Bradley represents the state from which Bruce Springsteen hails, said he sought Bradley's advice via telegram before announcing his candidacy. "Born to Run?" he said he wrote Bradley. And the reply came: "Dancing in the Dark?"

Dismissing the notion that people don't know him, Babbitt told the crowd that on the way in he had signed 50 autographs at the cocktail party. "I have them right here," he said.

And Gephardt, a former Eagle Scout, said he was nearly late for the ceremonies because he was helping old ladies across the street. "But they didn't want to go," he quipped.

The program lasted almost two hours. And it was Bradley who brought the evening to a close with a remark that may have said it all: "As my wife said, for this you need a tuxedo?"