May 16, 2006

Bush lavishes praise on Australia’s Howard

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush on Tuesday
praised Australia's John Howard as a staunch ally in the war in
Iraq, and suggested that he expected the four-term prime
minister to run once more for re-election.

At a joint news conference with Howard, Bush did nothing to
deter speculation in Australia that Howard might run again next
year instead of retiring. He has won four straight elections
and been in power for 10 years.

"Well, I suspect he's going to outlast me, so that is a
moot point," Bush said when asked if he could work effectively
with a future Australian leader.

Bush's presidency ends in January 2009.

Bush treated Howard, a stalwart ally in Iraq and elsewhere,
to a grand welcome. Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House
was lined with U.S. and Australian flags and Howard received a
colorful South Lawn arrival ceremony.

An official dinner was planned for Tuesday evening.

Howard said at the arrival ceremony that the two countries
have much in common, including a "long and difficult fight"
ahead in the war on terrorism.

"Progress is being made, but much lies ahead," said Howard,
whose government has sent troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the news conference, Bush recalled thinking about
Howard's last re-election campaign when he trailed in polls.

"And I remember saying to somebody, 'This man is going to
be rewarded at the ballot box' because the people of Australia
want somebody who is consistently strong, not somebody who
tries to waffle around trying to figure out, you know, where to
end up for political expediency," Bush said.

He called Howard a reliable partner willing to make tough
decisions and joked that one of the few differences between
them was that the prime minister lacked a good head of hair.

"He may not be the prettiest person on the block but when
he tells you something you can take it to the bank," said Bush,
prompting chuckles from Howard in the White House East Room.

Howard stands out among foreign backers of the Iraq war for
maintaining his political strength since the 2003 invasion.

Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar was defeated
in 2004; Italy's Silvio Berlusconi lost an election last month.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair's popularity has plummeted
and Bush himself has seen his approval ratings plunge since the
war began.

Australian analysts believe Howard could fight one more
election before handing over to his heir apparent, Treasurer
Peter Costello.

Howard, 66, has refused to commit to leading the Liberal
Party to the next election, due in the second half of 2007.
Costello, his patient deputy, has made no secret of his
ambition to replace Howard.