The Democrats gave last night's fundraiser the motto "The Race Begins. Gala '87," raising the question of just what Babbitt, Dukakis, Gephardt, Gore, Jackson and Simon (and a few recently departed others) have been doing for the last few months in New Hampshire and Iowa and on the stages of assorted debates. But perhaps the motto was just right: Wouldn't it be nice to start the race over again, and forget the scandals that have derailed Sens. Gary Hart and Joe Biden and bedeviled Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

"It's early," insisted Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul Kirk at the Washington Hilton. He then proceeded to spin an elaborate baseball metaphor comparing this stage of the campaign to spring training. "It doesn't mean because you have a couple of teams that did badly before the season begins, you won't win the pennant. We're going to win the pennant and the World Series."

The latest preseason contest occurred at yesterday's DNC-sponsored candidates' forum, where several hopefuls chastised Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) for "knifing" his fellow Democratic candidates, as Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) put it. Recently, Gore characterized the other five candidates as supporting policies of "retreat, complacency and doubt."

During the forum and afterward, the five fought back, claiming that Gore has been redefining himself as a conservative in order to stand out from the rest of the pack and risking injury to the entire Democratic field.

"It was five against one, but I enjoy that kind of situation," said Gore as he received admirers at his crowded predinner reception. "We've had a process that encourages everyone to have exactly the same view that is wildly popular with a small minority of the voters. I'm calling it exactly as I see it. I believe that debates are about disagreement, not agreement."

Simon disagreed.

"The last couple of times he has been taking out after people, and I thought it was time to say we have to be careful what we say about each other," said Simon as he entered his own reception.

"I like Sen. Gore," said former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt. "He is a good man, a good candidate, and I don't think it's time to be raining on Sen. Gore. My counsel to him was simple -- be careful of the big, colorful adjectives."

Deep in the crush at the Gore reception, Democratic pollster Peter Hart expressed the equanimity of the experienced observer.

"The fact of the matter is, they all want the nomination, and they have to be able to pick their spots," he said. "What Albert Gore did early, every other candidate is going to do later. What the Democrats need are the primaries. You need the voters in the process. We don't have them now, and we are all in close quarters -- like in this room -- and everyone is falling all over each other. Once the voters are in, you'll have a larger field and the Democrats will start to look good."

In the larger field of the banquet hall, candidates and DNC officials and handshake seekers and tray-bearing waiters shouting "Watch out! Hot! Hot!" were falling all over each other. Kirk chose to interpret the hubbub as a good sign.

"I think the atmosphere speaks for itself," he bellowed from the podium. "The din, the excitement, the noise, the spirit is in the air."

Which was a nice way of saying that the 2,000 guests were much more interested in meeting, congratulating, back-slapping, pursuing, wooing and attempting to get an intimate second or two with the candidates than in listening to Paul Kirk (or anyone else, for that matter).

The dinner raised a record $2.2 million. In return for the $1,500 apiece the guests paid to attend, they each received a silver box holding a Gala '87 T-shirt. ("All the girls are going to put them on later and dump water on them," smiled one male guest. This did not happen.)

One erstwhile and another almost-candidate showed up for the event. Gary Hart, who received his share of warm handshakes and hugs, had no desire to comment on any scandals, past or present.

"I find the people of this country want to talk about arms control, the education of their children, the economy and substantial issues," he said. "I think most people are getting fed up with politics and I think they deserve better."

Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) said at least one thing is different since she decided not to run.

"My life is much more sane."

Nina Killham contributed to this report.