THE FIRST time I broke bread with millionaire Tom Knox (and his press secretary, who sat in, silently) it was lunch at the Four Seasons. The tab came to almost $100 - with tip. I paid.

Actually, the Daily News paid (which means millionaire Brian Tierney paid). When reporters and candidates take each other out, you can bet they're using Other Peoples' Money.

Following lunch, I wrote a column saying Knox should be judged on the soundness of his ideas, not the thickness of his wallet. I called him the Millionaire Populist.

I broke bread with Knox again last Thursday, at American Legion McMenamy Post 178 in Holmesburg. He paid, but he didn't eat and neither did I.

This was the seventh in a series of meals Knox served up in various neighborhoods. Sometimes it's breakfast - eggs and waffles - sometimes it's hot dogs and hamburgers. Thursday night it was spaghetti and meatballs, but so many people showed up, dozens couldn't even get in.

"This is poorly planned," muttered one disappointed lady who walked out.

I stood and didn't eat, so as to not deprive a Real Potential Voter.

Because there's no such thing as a free meal, Knox served up a platter of his ideas before taking questions.

More than 100 people who had "retired" stamped on them were gathered in the post's banquet room. (I love being in a room where I am called "Sonny.")

I'm not laughing at old people - and neither do politicians. Seniors turn out to vote in very high numbers and seem to grasp the issues, at least the ones that affect them.

Given a choice between a senior-citizens center and a college, smart pols pick the people with rings on their fingers instead of stuck through their noses.

In blue blazer and gray pants, Knox made his pitch in nine minutes flat, then answered questions for more than an hour, like a popular prof in front of admiring students.

He got three questions about trees and none about the city's soaring murder rate, which tells you it's pretty safe up in Holmesburg, Mayfair, Rhawnhurst and Andalusia.

There were questions about too-high taxes and too-few city services. Knox promised to "blow up L&I." He slammed nepotism, patronage, fraud and the "plain stupidity" that costs Philly "hundreds of millions of dollars."

Knox claimed there's $400 million in the city budget he could save. Not being reporters, the crowd didn't ask for specifics.

When I did, I got a list - not all true savings - that came to less than $200 million (which is not peanuts). His press secretary said Knox has other savings he won't reveal now.

Actually, "now" is the perfect time, lest cynics say Knox is full of it.

There were some former cynics in the

self-selected crowd, invited by 20,000 robot phone calls.

Retired Air Force sergeant Don MacNeil, 67, didn't ask a question so much as make a statement. He and his wife are independents, who liked what Knox had to say.

"I've been in this city since 1980" and usually vote against candidates, he told me later. "I've been waiting to vote FOR someone." He and his wife both said they will register as Democrats to vote for Knox in the primary.

So will Mary Sinnott, 78, a Republican since 1985. "We need a change, that's the biggest thing," she said.

Two other Republicans told me they, too, will switch for Knox.

Not that there's any real similarity, but the last time I heard talk like that was when Ed Rendell ran.

Everyone knows Rendell can connect with a crowd - but Knox?

Even before today's Daily News/Keystone Poll handed him the lead, the Millionaire Populist's steadiness in the polls had pols nervous. A glum ward leader I know is among the insiders who fear Knox will win.

Some Dems still use the word "corpse" when they talk about Knox, but it's beginning to feel like they're whistling past the graveyard. *

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