NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- ''Will he announce?'' asked the Lincoln Club of Orange County's publication in preparation for Fred Thompson's appearance at the organization's 45th annual dinner here Friday night. A rumor, totally unfounded, ran rampant before his speech that Thompson would declare his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination at the dinner lectern. In fact, he did not even hint at this prospect in a performance that was a letdown for the packed audience of conservative Republicans.
''It was not Reaganesque.'' ''No red meat.'' ''Too low key.'' That was the preponderant reaction I heard to Thompson's half-hour presentation (leavened by a few favorable comments, mostly by women, that he was more ''statesmanlike'' and ''presidential'' than the announced candidates). Lincoln Club members, like many conservative Republicans, had been unimpressed by the existing field of Republican hopefuls and envisioned Thompson as the second coming of Ronald Reagan. They did not get it Friday night.
The excitement aroused in melancholy Republican ranks by the politician-commentator-actor will not be doused by one lackluster performance. Nevertheless, his first speech since his unexpected presidential boom began suggests Thompson needs preparation if he does take up this daunting burden. The deeper concern by some supporters is whether the tepid reaction in Orange County will shake what had seemed his clear resolve to make the race.
Expectations were exaggerated as well-dressed Republicans gathered at the posh Balboa Bay Club on Friday night. Dissatisfaction with the current presidential field was intensified by the chaotic nationally televised debate of 10 Republican candidates the previous night. Rudy Giuliani seemed uncomfortable dealing with standard conservative issues. John McCain sounded harsh and hawkish. Mitt Romney's newfound conservatism still seems contrived to many in the Republican base. ''Everybody is still looking for the conservative candidate,'' Orange County Republican Chairman Scott Baugh told me.
That explains the anticipation awaiting Thompson. He had vaulted from nowhere into the top tier of Republican candidates without running an ad, spending a dime or giving a speech. He did not organize his astounding series of first-place straw poll finishes at Republican gatherings in California, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Georgia. He was impressive, wowing a closed-door meeting of House Republicans and turning up at the national Catholic prayer breakfast.