Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Fred Thompson sat at the end of a long table in The Monocle restaurant on Capitol Hill Tuesday night for dinner with some 20 fellow conservatives, mostly journalists. He sent two signals. First, he sounded like a man who has decided to run for president. Second, his candidacy will be something different from other Republicans, in both substance and style.

This was one of the irregular sessions of the Saturday Evening Club, which is not a club and never meets on Saturday. The name was purloined from H.L. Mencken's Baltimore discussion club by R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., editor-in-chief of The American Spectator. Tyrrell arranges and presides over these events, always featuring a guest newsmaker -- usually a Republican presidential hopeful over the past two years. Former Sen. Thompson was the most intriguing of them because he has become a leading prospect for president even though he has not announced his candidacy and has no real campaign.

Thompson's performance Tuesday night, with his remarks off the record, helped show why many Republican insiders are ready to support him. Thompson is winning straw polls at Republican conferences and running well in polls mainly because of dissatisfaction, for varying reasons, with the three leading GOP candidates -- Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney. But Thompson at the dinner table confirmed the widespread perception inside the party of his potential to be an extraordinary candidate.

Thompson disappointed in his first speech as a prospective candidate, addressing the Lincoln Club of Orange County, Calif., on May 4. Discarding a speech he had written himself, Thompson ad-libbed from handwritten notes, a performance that placed him in the usual run of Republican after-dinner speakers. This was not the second coming of Reagan that Californians envisioned. Was all the excitement about Thompson merely engendered by his television role as the formidable Manhattan district attorney on "Law and Order"?

He stuck to his prepared cards for his second speech, at a Republican state party function in Stamford, Conn., last week, and it was a considerable improvement. It sounded more like an off-the-record conversation he had with me in Orange County, Calif., before his speech there, and his Saturday Evening Club conversation.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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