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Likely Blair Successor Takes Stage

September 25, 2006 GMT

MANCHESTER, England (AP) _ The man widely expected to succeed Tony Blair as Britain’s next prime minister is stepping into the spotlight, seeking to prove to the governing Labour Party and the nation that he’s ready for the job.

Gordon Brown, Britain’s powerful finance minister, was to take center stage Monday at Labour’s annual conference for a speech likely to be the most important of his career.

With Tony Blair on his way out of office, Labour loyalists are ready to carefully scrutinize the man they have long assumed would be their party’s next leader _ and therefore prime minister.

The annual meeting is Blair’s last as prime minister and the first in which more eyes will be on Brown.

``This is the time now for Gordon to show the Labour Party what he’s all about and ... what he wants Britain to be,″ said Kris Brown, 21, a local council member in north London and delegate at the conference.

Gordon Brown planned to pledge to follow in Blair’s centrist ``New Labour″ footsteps by continuing a contentious overhaul that has brought private companies into public services like health and education, according to excerpts of his speech released in advance by his office.

Brown will have to walk a fine line in the speech he’s spent weeks crafting. To secure his hold on the job he’s coveted for years, he must show Labour activists and the country what kind of prime minister he would be.

Blair gave in to a fierce party revolt to announce on Sept. 7 that he would leave office within a year, although he has not set a precise date.

The political world has long seen the powerful Treasury chief as a prime minister-in-waiting, but until recently he has kept a low profile, exercising his influence mostly behind the scenes.

With the vacancy at the top of the party drawing closer, he has begun moving out of the shadows in hopes of proving to the public that he’s the right man to lead Britain.

With rivals still suggesting he tried to push Blair out of office, Brown will have to avoid seeming too impatient to take the keys to 10 Downing St.

``I want Tony Blair to be able to make his own decisions about what he wants to do and for him to announce them and I will support them,″ Brown told the British Broadcasting Corp. Sunday.

Some suspected Brown of engineering the rebellion against. That belief has soured segments of the party on him, although he has denied any role and Blair has said he accepts Brown’s assurances that he was not plotting a coup.

The resurgent Conservative Party hopes to retake power in elections expected in 2009 and Blair and Brown have sought to calm the angry infighting that roiled the party in the months leading up to Blair’s announcement.

Blair issued a stern warning Sunday, saying Labour’s preoccupation with the question of who will succeed him is distracting it from policy and could damage its electoral prospects.

``The public out there are angry about that. They don’t want to see their government do that. They want us to govern,″ he said in a BBC interview as the conference opened.