It's noon in the American Enterprise Institute's 12th-floor dining room, where Irving Kristol, Norman Ornstein and other luminaries lunch. On the menu is swordfish and white wine. On the agenda is a Bush transition. If George W. Bush becomes president, says AEI scholar Douglas Besharov, beckoning to the dining room, "this whole place empties out."

For the first time since Ronald Reagan swept to power, conservative think tanks have the prospect of a wholly new administration to serve as a vehicle for their scholars and their ideas. Besharov is exaggerating, but there's a sense at AEI that the place is a Bush administration-in-waiting.

Consider the lineup. There's AEI trustee Richard B. Cheney, who would be Bush's vice president. There's Cheney's wife, Lynne, an AEI education specialist. There's Lawrence Lindsey, Bush's top economic adviser and likely a top Bush appointee. Christopher DeMuth, AEI's president, is being mentioned as Environmental Protection Agency chief. AEI's Richard Perle, a foreign policy adviser to Bush, is being mentioned for a high-level job. AEI's Carolyn Weaver, another Bush adviser, may have a role in Social Security reform. And don't forget John Bolton, who was in charge of the Bush legal team in Palm Beach County and is mentioned for deputy secretary of state or another foreign policy job.

"It's the White House north, the White House annex," says Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. "It's like what the NCAA is to the NBA." Hudson and other conservative think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation and, particularly, Stanford University's Hoover Institution, are all hoping for a moment in the sun. But among this group of tax-exempt research organizations, AEI, because of its Cheney and Lindsey ties, is in the spotlight.

"American Enterprise, just a moment . . . American Enterprise, hold on," says Doris Gibson, the receptionist. She repeats this five more times to quiet the switchboard. "It's been like this all morning," she says. Why? Keep listening. "Mrs. Cheney is not in the office, but I can transfer you to her assistant," Gibson tells one caller. AEI, which occupies three floors at 17th and M streets NW, is a collection of bright hallways with dark wooden doors bearing the names of potential West Wingers in a Bush administration.

Conservative thinkers in town are full of anticipation. "There's a sense of a huge potential to get things we've been working on 10 years enacted," says Steve Moore of the Cato Institute. Cato, because of its hard-line libertarianism, doesn't expect to land many Bush appointments, but "the way a lot of us feel is if the right job came along at a high-enough level, we'd go," says Moore, who has periodically advised Bush on taxes and Social Security.

Wittmann, who backed Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in the GOP presidential primaries and is unlikely to join a Bush administration, says colleagues at conservative think tanks are trying to "find a rabbi" in the Bush campaign to lead them into the administration.

"As early as the summer there was hot and heavy e-mailing going around," he says. Now, "everyone is having fevered phone conversations and e-mail transmissions about who's going where."

All the conservative think tanks share a hope that Bush will draw from their ideological ranks rather than call on non-dogmatic moderates, whom his father favored.

Hoover, founded in 1919 by the future president, sent an army of advisers to Washington for Reagan. Now, it's a bastion of the gray-haired old guard: economist Michael Boskin, political thinker Martin Anderson, former secretary of state George P. Shultz. But it has many prospects for a new Bush administration. Condoleezza Rice is considered a lock for Bush's national security adviser. John Cogan is a top prospect for the Office of Management and Budget, and John Taylor might chair the Council of Economic Advisers. Eric Hanushek has advised the Bush campaign on education.

Hoover's relationship with Bush dates to 1998, when the Texas governor sat in Shultz's California living room (as Reagan had done 20 years earlier), helping to organize policy groups for the governor's presidential campaign. Martin Anderson says as many as a dozen people from Hoover could be tapped to join Bush, though probably far fewer.

"They'll remain active in giving advice," says Anderson, himself a distant prospect. "People in the business I'm in love to have people listen to their ideas."

Indianapolis-based Hudson has a small claim to Bush. Bush friend Al Hubbard is on its board, and former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith, Bush's top domestic policy adviser, is close to Hudson, as is former senator Dan Coats (R-Ind.). Goldsmith is a possible housing and urban development secretary or top White House appointee; Coats is a possible defense secretary.

The Heritage Foundation, considered more ideologically doctrinaire than AEI, was dominant in the Reagan transition in 1980; its "Mandate for Leadership" became a blueprint in the Reagan White House. Now, Heritage is trying to get its ideas on a Bush administration agenda. It has a new version of its mandate on the way, a book on federal priorities due out the week before Christmas, and a book on executive orders in the works.

"They're going to be listening," Heritage President Edwin J. Feulner says of a Bush transition. "They're going to have to. With a third of the time being gone, it'll be like a vacuum cleaner sucking in a lot of ideas."

Among Heritage's possible placements in a Bush administration are former Peace Corps director Elaine Chao, discussed as an energy secretary or other Cabinet-level appointment; Kay James, who could head the Department of Health and Human Services or a sub-Cabinet agency; Stuart Butler, who could wind up at HUD; and Kim Holmes, a foreign policy analyst. Nina Rees, who has advised Bush on education, may wind up in the White House, and Becky Dunlop is a possible policy adviser.

While Heritage's orthodoxy, activism and social conservatism matched the Reagan administration well, Bush's new-look conservatism is a better match for the free-market slant of AEI, a center-right counterpart to the center-left Brookings Institution. Even Feulner sees a "natural affinity" between Bush and AEI.

Founded in 1943, AEI rose to prominence in the 1970s but fell on economic hard times in the 1980s before DeMuth, the current president, rebuilt it. Several of its 50 scholars have given advice to Bush (always on their own time, they hasten to point out, because of AEI's tax status). In addition to Lindsey, Richard Cheney, DeMuth, Bolton, Weaver and Perle, foreign policy expert Jeffrey Gedmin, financial services scholar Glenn Hubbard and economist John Makin are potentially in the mix.

AEI expects Lynne Cheney to keep her position at AEI. "You clearly have a number of people hoping to go in," says Ornstein. "My guess is we lose five, six, seven."

Gedmin, like his colleagues, offers many caveats. Campaign policy advisers aren't necessarily administration members. Bush won't necessarily have leeway to hire many ideological conservatives. And "really nobody knows who from AEI will get offered a job. Washington is a competitive place, and elbows fly." Still, this moment can't be bad for AEI and the other think tanks. "After eight years of Clinton, the idea folks on the center-right will have an opportunity to shop their ideas," he says.