They had roast prime rib and hoopla for dinner. And they served upmixed metaphors about presidential politicking here in the state that holds the first primary for the nation's top office.

Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas called it "a talent contest". Rep. John Anderson of Illinois said it was a "cattle show". And former new hampshire governor Meldrim Thomson dubbed it "a fore-runnerto a prelude".

But Gerald Carmen, the head of the republican party here, put it: "I look at it as sort of an official kickoff of the presidential primary;this is like a starting gate".

Itwas billed as the first$100-a-plate quadernnial granite state GOP "Salute to the Next President of the United States" Saturday night,and seven presidential aspirants and the wife of an eighth showed up to claim the title.

It was the first major gathering of Republican presidential talent here and the josting for local support was polite,if frenzied.

There were Dole and Anderson. Former California governor Ronald Reagan was represented by his wife,Nancy, and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. Former CIA director George Bush was there. Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, who had planned to appear, couldn't make it because his wife was sick.

Then there were the announced candidates: Sen. LowellWeicker of Connecticut, who just came to say hello and left for a fire chief's conference nearby; former Texas governor John Connally, Rep. Philip Crane of Illinois and perennial candidate Harold Stassen.

"It's too early to call it, much too early," said David Gosselin, a former state party chairman. "There's 10 months before the primary and most of us haven't even divided ourselves upinto little fiefdoms and kingdoms yet".

So the candidates were given sixminutes each to preach the GOP gospel, rouse the troops and help persuade the audience to join their crusades.

They are starting early here in this political bellwether state, with their eyes on the unofficial title held by the unannounced candidate who didn't come to dinner-Donal Reagan, front runner.

"But some of his support is already going to his challengers and if he waits too long he'll have some serious trouble," said New Hampshire's new junior senator, Gordon Humphrey.

But Reagan's New England regional coordinator Roger Stone says: "He has a strong base, his organization is pretty well intact; we'll do well here."

"He certainly starts out far in advance of the rest of us," said Connally, whose table-thumping rhetoric was interrupted by applause seven times.

They cheered as he urged more nuclear power development and said the nation should not be deterred by the recent Pennsylvania incident. "Just because a plane crashes and unavoidably kills as many as 100 people we don't ground all the planes," he said.

Bush is mentioned frequently here as a candidate to watch. He already has won support from both of the state's national committeemen.

Crane, who has already been here 21 times since announcing his candidacy last summer, says his well-groomed organization in the state has given him the inside track.

Crane's name was vaulted into the limelight by William Loeb, publisher of the Manchester Union Leader and a staunch Reagan supporter.

Last month the newspaper, in an article harsh even by Loeb's acerbic standards, quoted unnamed sources who charged that the congressman conceals a playboy's fondness for whiskey and women beneath his clean-cut appearance. Crane who campaigned this weekend with his wife and three children, has vigorously denied the allegations. In Saturday's editions, another story quoted a few of Crane's neighbors in McLean, Va., saying the congressman holds beer parties and leaves his children unattended.

"It's sad and unfortunate that Mr. Loeb would choose to zero in on the personal aspects of the Crane family," campaign spokesman Laura Broderick said by telephone today. "The Cranes are very devoted parents and it's a shame the children have to go through this; we're choosing to ignore these stories, but they are part of the price the whole family pays for the presidency." CAPTION: Picture, Harold Stassen greets Ronald Reagan's wife, Nancy, at Republican fund-raiser. UPI