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Britain's Next Prime Minister?

Gordon Brown, the man expected to succeed Tony Blair as prime minister, strengthened his claim on the job Monday with a self-confident speech that gave the clearest picture yet of what kind of leader he'd be.

Delegates at the governing Labour Party's annual conference gave the treasury chief a standing ovation after the address, which was seen as crucial to his leadership bid and closely watched for signals of what his agenda would be if he wins.

It wasn't immediately clear whether his performance was strong enough to scare off potential rivals for the job, but in a party desperate to avoid a bloody battle it seemed to boost his hopes of eventually becoming prime minister.

Brown set out a centrist vision that suggested he agreed with Blair's view that Labour must stay focused on moderate voters if it wants to retain power. But he also sought support from the party's left with declarations of his commitment to core Labour values like social justice and fighting poverty.

"He got a cheer in the conference, but whether he'll get a cheer in the country I don't know," said Malcolm Perry, 67, a lawyer and delegate from Gloucestershire, western England.

Perry said he worried that Brown would be unable to match Blair's success at appealing to voters but felt better about having him as party leader after hearing the speech.

"There's nobody else," he said.

Chris Martin, 40, a longtime Brown backer, was more enthusiastic.

"I was so inspired, that speech came from the heart," he said. "It just completely bowled me over. There's no doubt in my mind there's a future prime minister there."

Brown opened by addressing a touchy subject — the sometimes-bitter rivalry between himself and Blair, which flared earlier this month and threatened to derail the party's years of electoral success.

Brown has denied suggestions that he was behind a party rebellion that forced the prime minister to promise on Sept. 7 to resign within a year — but most believe he has been growing impatient for Blair to step aside so he can take office. Blair has not set a precise date for his departure.

Brown praised Blair effusively, calling him a visionary leader, but acknowledged that their long political relationship had had its ups and downs.

"Where over these years differences have been a distraction from what matters, I regret that and I know Tony does too," Brown said.

He echoed Blair's call for Labour to stop obsessing about its internal politics and focus on policies that matter to Britons. "The only reason any of us are here is that we are in politics as servants of the people," he said.

He singled out the prime minister's stance on terrorism for warm words, although many in the party have been infuriated by the Blair's close alliance with U.S. President George W. Bush.

"Tony, you taught us something else, and once again you saw it right," he said. "The world did change after Sept. 11. No one can be neutral in the fight against terrorism and that we, Britain, have new international responsibilities to discharge."

Brown said Labour must never succumb to anti-Americanism. But he gave a wink to the party's strong opposition to Blair's decision to join the U.S.-led attack on Iraq, saying Parliament, not the prime minister, should make the final decision about going to war.

He said little else about Iraq, the issue driving Blair's political woes. Brown backed the invasion although he acknowledged earlier Monday the aftermath should have been better handled.

Brown lacks Blair's polish and ability to connect with voters and some in the party worry his introverted personality would damage Labour's chances when it goes up against the self-assured young Conservative leader David Cameron in elections likely to be held in 2009.

But he got his biggest cheer when he told the delegates he'd relish the chance to take on the resurgent Tories. He took a jab at Cameron, who has been accused of being more flash than substance, by saying he got into politics because he wanted to make a difference, not to become a celebrity.

Labour won a majority in elections last year, so whomever it chooses to succeed Blair would become prime minister without having to face voters right away. The next election must be held by 2010, although prime ministers generally choose to call a vote about a year before the deadline.

Brown promised to push forward a contentious Blair overhaul that has brought private companies into public services like health and education. But he also hinted at a shift in style from the Blair government, which some have criticized as too micromanaging.

A deeply private man, he also tried to give the public a glimpse of who he is and what drives him by recalling how strongly his parents shaped his view of the world.

The prime minister's wife, Cherie Blair, denied a report by Bloomberg News that she had called Brown a liar. Bloomberg News reported she had walked out of the auditorium during Brown's speech when he said it had been a privilege to work with Tony Blair. According to Bloomberg, she had said "well, that's a lie."

She told reporters later Monday "I hate to spoil your story, but I didn't say it, and I don't believe it, either."

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