WASHINGTON - To the last, neither George Bush nor Tony Blair wavered.

The British prime minister allowed not a single regret about the war alliance that cost him his popularity and, many believe, his job. The U.S. president, losing his best friend on the world stage, bristled at suggestions that Blair should already be out the door.

"Trying to do a tap dance on his political grave, aren't you?" Bush said yesterday at Blair's side in the White House Rose Garden, admonishing British reporters looking beyond Blair's tenure six weeks before he leaves office. "You don't understand how effective Blair is, I guess."

Bush's reluctance to see the British leader go is understandable. For Bush, Blair has been a steadfast friend for over six years, an articulate and impassioned defender of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

The British prime minister has been a presence in Bush's presidency like no other leader.

Telephone conversations were regular. This White House meeting spanning two days was their 13th get-together in Washington since Bush took office in 2001. It was their 30th overall as leaders, including four in the sought-after ambience of Camp David or Bush's Texas ranch.

It wasn't even their last; that will come early next month at a gathering of major industrialized countries in Germany.

Still, as a farewell of sorts, it was more sentimental than substantive.

Reflecting their close ties, Blair was offered at the last minute - and accepted - a White House sleepover, choosing the Queen's Bedroom down the hall from the president over the coincidentally named Blair House across the street, the traditional quarters for visiting leaders.

Wednesday evening, Bush and Blair dined on she-crab soup, wagyu beef and potatoes, and rhubarb-strawberry napoleon. The pair then sat on the Truman Balcony, peering out over Washington's monuments as they chatted into the night. After breakfast yesterday morning, Blair strolled with Bush from the residence to the Oval Office - though he was left cooling his heels on the patio while the president received his daily intelligence briefing.

There was yet another perk: a trip to the newly renovated and top-secret Situation Room in the basement of the White House, for an hour-long secure videoconference between the two leaders and their countries' representatives in Iraq.

Bush and Blair have cooperated on Iran; on the Middle East; on fighting malaria, AIDS and genocide in Africa; and on the global antiterror battle, among a host of pressing issues.

There have been few clues from Blair's successor, Treasury chief Gordon Brown, about whether Britain's stance will shift in Iraq, where it is the second-largest contributor of troops. Blair suggested it would not, though it was unclear whether he was offering knowledge or opinion.

"I believe we will remain a staunch and steadfast ally in the fight against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere," Blair said. "There is no alternative for us but to fight it wherever it exists."

The U.S. and British leaders found common ground on Iraq in their first meeting, barely a month after Bush became president. Appearing together at snowy, rustic Camp David, they stood firm on strong sanctions against Saddam Hussein.

Back then, they found little else to bind them.

The conservative U.S. president was asked what he shared with Blair, the younger and liberal prime minister who had been so close - in style and substance - to President Bill Clinton. All Bush could manage (it was said later he thought the question was dumb) was Colgate toothpaste, a commitment to exercise, "great" wives, and love for their children.

Over the years, their bond grew intense, based on personal chemistry as well as a fierce belief in the rightness of the 2003 Iraq invasion and the decision to remain there.

This belief was tested, and tested again, by the violence that has gripped Iraq and inspired growing doubts among their countrymen. This was underscored when the sounds of a clutch of protesters drifted through the Rose Garden yesterday.

"We took a decision that we thought was very difficult," Blair said. "I thought then, and I think now, it was the right decision."

Brown Accepts Labor's Nomination

Gordon Brown secured his place as Britain's next prime minister yesterday when he accepted the nomination as leader of the Labor Party with overwhelming backing from party members.

"I will strive to earn your trust, not just in foreign policy, but to earn your trust in our schools, in our hospitals, and in our public services," he said after the party's left wing failed to muster enough support to force a contest.

The effective coronation of the centrist politician ends the prospect of a bruising internal fight over issues such as the Iraq war, Britain's nuclear arsenal,

a higher minimum wage, and renationalization of the railways. Brown now has a clear path to succeed Tony Blair, who is expected to step down June 27 after more than a decade as prime minister.

- Associated Press

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See video of remarks

by Bush and Blair via http://go.philly.com/bushblair

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