Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

Gerald Ford and his government-in-exile are back in town. And the former President is looking tan and youthful. Just the man to star in a $100-a-head coming-out party for the American Enterprise Institute, a bullsih think tank of the right.

The AEI, which after nearly 35 years is getting big foundation money and which gathered an audience Tuesday night of 1,300 people to a filet mignon dinner, figured it was time to add some sex appeal to the image.

Gerald Ford.

"Never looked better," said Milton Pitts, perennial White House barber, who was among the glittering crowd of academicians, politicians and Gerald Ford's shadow cabinet.

And Gerald Ford in addressing the crowd was clearly polishing up his intellectual glamour in his new-found image as elder statesman. Maybe, that is, he was running for President. Maybe he was just claiming his territorial rights in Jimmy Carter's Washington.

Trying to ask him that in a question, however, was a bit difficult due to the still-present Secret Service.

Are you here because you're running for president, Mr. Ford? "No, I'm here because I'm having a good time," he said.

At an AEI lunch earlier Tuesday, preeminent conservative pundit Irving Kristol introduced Ford as "the 38th President of the United States, though there are those who say the tally is not final."

And there are those who think he indeed still is running for the Republican nomination in 1980. Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), himself an avowed presidential hopeful, denied that he was at the dinner to "take Ford's pulse. I'm just here to say hello," he said. After Ford's speech, however, Dole said, "I felt like I wanted to stand up and say 'And if elected . . .'"

The Institute, funded by money from the Lilly, Ford and Mellon foundations, chose Ford as keynote speaker of its first public policy dinner Tuesday at the Washington Hilton. The lecture was endowed by SmithKline, a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company, and Ford got the first $10,000 lecture stipend under the conditions of the endowment. SmithKline announced that the lecturers should be "eminent thinkers." Asked how it was that the great brains of conservatism came up with Ford, D. Gale Johnson laughed.

Johnson, an economist and provost of the University of Chicago and an adviser to the Institute, said, "Wouldn't you agree with me? He looks better every day."

The AEI is headed by the Kennedys of the conservative right - executive vice president William Baroody Jr. and his father, William Baroody Sr., president. Like the Kennedys, they are a dynasty. At least eight showed up at Tuesday's party.

And the Baroodys know they could have gotten no bigger headliner for their debut dinner (although the think tank was established in 1943) than a former President of the United States. And Washington being Washington, all the politicians who but yesterday ran the world showed up for one last, or maybe future, hurrah.

Kissinger, Richardson, Dent, Colby, Moore, Lynn, Harlow, Kleppe, et al.

So what was Ralph Nader doing there Tuesday, along with Thomas Corcoran, Rep. Lindy Boggs (D-La.) and Sen. Russell Long (D-La.)?

Said Nader: "This is a lot more than just a dinner. It's an emerging phenomenon. Where you stand on unbridled corporate power makes all the difference. A real conservative is as conservative on that as he is on unbridled government."

Said Corcoran mildly, "Jerry Ford was in the Congress for a long, long time. For one reason or another, we're all friends of his. This is Baroody's coming out party. Half the people on the board of AEI are Democrats. The government doesn't run unless there's a consensus. That's why this thing is interesting."

Washington being Washington, it wasn't yet time for the lion and the lamb to lie down together. Seated at Ralph Nader's table was none other than Bryce Harlow, who as you will remember was one of those largely responsible for the troubles with the consumer protection agency.

The presence of the Democrats, they said themselves, was not a measure of Carter backlash. It may have been a measure of the scholarly fitness of the AEI's publications. Or it may a be sign of conservative Republican breakthrough into sexy issues.

It could be any one of a number of issues, like government deregulation or the $68-billion tax cut Ford proposed in his speech Tuesday or the Panama Canal treaty. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) said of the Panama Canal treaty, "The Republicans have been looking for a people's issue for years. And now they've got one. Only they're going to blow it by not doing a thing about it."

But even Helms came bearing gifts Tuesday - a pair of North Carolina wool socks for the former President. "I just don't want him to get cold feet," he said slyly.

It was an unusual gathering. "It just shows the bipartisan support for a $68-billion tax cut," said a newly svelte Kissinger.