But former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson avoided any discussion of a possible White House run and instead delivered a strong speech attacking Democrats and reminding his fellow Republicans of their GOP roots.
"I'm not here to make a pitch tonight. I'm here to support what you're doing," Thompson said.
Thompson was the keynote speaker at the annual Prescott Bush Awards Dinner, named for President Bush's grandfather who was a U.S. senator from Connecticut from 1952 to 1963. About 600 guests paid between $250 to $1,000 for a chance to meet the Tennessee Republican.
Some conservatives, a sizable part of the GOP base, eagerly hope Thompson will make a bid for the party's presidential nomination.
Many backers say Thompson, who is well known for his role as prosecutor Arthur Branch in NBC's long-running drama "Law and Order," is the sole conservative candidate in the mold of Ronald Reagan, another ex-actor when he ran for president.
"People ask me why I left Washington, I said I longed for the realism and sincerity of Hollywood," Thompson joked.
In contrast, some conservatives have found fault for numerous reasons with declared candidates such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and ex-Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.
Thompson centered his message around traditional Republican policies of a strong national defense and a limited government.
"My friends, that's the party that I joined and I bet you that's the party you joined. I'm sure that's the party our country needs tonight," Thompson said. "We need to make sure that's still our party. I think the biggest problem is the disconnect between Washington, D.C. and the people of the United States."
He said he was inspired at the age of 21 by Sen. Barry Goldwater's book, "Conscience of a Conservative."
But since then much has changed.
He said millions of dollars in "pork barrel spending, backbiting and battles over all things large and small are creating a cynicism. I think the American people are looking for somewhere to go and we have to give them somewhere to go."
Thompson accused Democrats of trying to expand government and their constituencies and undoing the president's tax cuts.
"We must push back and push back hard," he said. "Remember how we won in the 1980 we stuck to our conservative principals."
He had strong words for those favoring withdrawal deadlines for U.S. troops in Iraq.
"Our choice is not whether or not we will fight our choice is where we will fight," Thompson said. "And the only debate going on with regard to this most important issue facing our country on the Democratic side of the aisle is the date of our surrender."
Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who introduced Thompson, urged her fellow Republican lawmakers to prod the Democratic leadership of the General Assembly to wrap up its work by the time the session ends June 6. Still outstanding is one very large item - the two-year state budget.
People close to Thompson, whose senate term spanned nearly a decade - from 1994 to 2003 - say he has not made a final decision about running. If he announces, it's expected to be sometime in the summer.
He is hiring staff, speaking to conservative groups, writing online columns and staking out positions on issues like the Senate immigration overhaul.
Thompson's expected entrance into the crowded GOP field could dramatically shake up the race but it's unclear who among the strongest contenders - Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Romney - would be affected the most.
Already, Thompson is competitive with his potential rivals in national popularity polls, perhaps due in part to his "Law and Order" recognition.
However, he lags the declared candidates in fundraising by multimillions and trails in building campaign organizations and courting grass-roots supporters in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early primary voting states.
By Stephen Singer