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Britain's Cameron – prime minister-in-waiting?

At the Conservative Party's conference Thursday, David Cameron will try to project a more compassionate image even as he calls for public-spending cuts and tax hikes.

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Britain's Conservative Party leader David Cameron, center, listens to a speech by Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne at the Conservative Party Conference, Manchester, England, Tuesday Oct. 6, 2009. Britain's Conservative Party is holding its last annual conference before next year's national election, which polls show is all but certain to put the party back in power after more than a decade.

Jon Super/AP

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When David Cameron strides up to the podium at the Conservative Party conference on Thursday, he will do so as Britain's prime minister-in-waiting.

His party is the runaway favorite to lead the next government. All week, Mr. Cameron has urged humility on his center-right Tory party and warned that victory in elections to be held before May 2010 is not assured.

He may have a point. Though recent polls show the Tories between 12 and 15 points ahead of the incumbent Labour Party, any Tory disarray in the election runup could result in a hung parliament, where Cameron does not have an outright majority or controls only a narrow advantage.

The sheer scope of the task facing Cameron remains daunting. His party need to gain 117 seats to win a parliamentary majority of just one.

"The situation is dire for Gordon Brown; the party is in a rut," says Gavin Hayes, general secretary of Compass, a grassroots Labour lobby group. "But the election may be much closer than the polling suggests, especially if people conclude that Cameron's claim to [be] a friend of the poor and public services simply isn't true."

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