Young Itallian Political Candidate Promises Change

In a packed square, the candidate from the Democratic Party delivers his message: Vote for Change. Supporters hold up banners reading: We can!

If it seems like a snapshot from Barack Obama's presidential campaign, look again. This scene featured another Democrat fighting to lead his nation: Walter Veltroni, the outgoing Rome mayor, stirring up the crowd in his bid to be Italy's next premier.

The 52-year-old Veltroni faces an uphill battle against Silvio Berlusconi, the conservative leader and media tycoon who at age 71 is still the man to beat in the April 13-14 general election.

The flamboyant Berlusconi is vying to become premier for the third time in 14 years.

He is resorting to much of the same rhetoric that propelled him to power in the past: A promise of economic prosperity and lower taxes as well as the unfaltering self-confidence that he is the man to do the job.

"I'm not Superman, although my grandchildren believe I am," Berlusconi quipped during the first TV appearance of his campaign this month. "Well, in certain sectors I've actually been a bit of a Superman ..."

Not known for humility, Berlusconi has likened himself in previous campaign pitches to Napoleon, Winston Churchill and Jesus Christ.

Berlusconi hopes to capitalize on an electorate dissatisfied with the outgoing center-left government of Romano Prodi, whose resignation after less than two years in office led to the early vote. Polls have consistently showed Berlusconi's conservative forces leading — although Veltroni appears to be narrowing the gap.

Berlusconi was quoted as predicting Friday that his forces would win by a vast majority, but if neck-and-neck with Veltroni, he would be open to forming a "great coalition" with his opponents.

"The country needs great harmony," Italian news reports quoted Berlusconi as saying during an interview for one of his media empire's TV networks.

Veltroni has said a comeback is possible. He has started campaigning aboard an eco-friendly green bus that will take him to over 100 cities and towns up and down the Italian peninsula. Celebrated filmmaker director Ettore Scola was in tow on the first stop to film the event.

As mayor of Rome for seven years (he resigned days ago to run for premier), Veltroni can make a convincing argument that he is not associated with an unpopular government and that he is an agent of change. He says his newly formed Democratic Party will run alone, breaking with the habit of forming a broad, and ultimately unstable, coalition with other formations.

"Italy faces a clear choice: Either continuing like the past 15 years or turning the page," Veltroni told some 5,000 supporters Sunday during his first campaign rally in Pescara, an Adriatic city some 200 kilometers (125 miles) east of Rome. "I believe Italy wants to turn the page."

The 50-minute speech was interrupted by cheers and shouts of "Bravo!" and "Go Walter!"

The rally featured all the key themes of the Veltroni campaign: an appeal for national unity after years of mudslinging, a message of hope for the future, and — unusually for the country's left — a patriotic touch that included belting out the national anthem at the end of the event.

Sticking to his do-good persona, Veltroni has so far refrained from the vehement attacks on opponents that have marked past campaigns. "I apologize if I don't speak ill of anybody, but I'm here to speak well of this country," he said at the Pescara rally.

Berlusconi has yet to hold any major rallies but he is preparing to plaster cities with posters saying "Italy, Get Back On Your Feet!" — contending that "the left has put Italy on its knees." He has launched a new conservative grouping, called the Freedom People, drawing in his biggest ally but alienating some other parties.

Italy's richest man and a skilled communicator, Berlusconi has conducted some lavish campaigns in the past. He held massive party conventions and employed unusual, populist tools to foster his image — as when he mailed to Italian households a glossy magazine illustrating his success story and featuring photos with celebrities like Sylvester Stallone.

The image-conscious Berlusconi, who has had plastic surgery around his eyes and a hair transplant, has also sought to defuse the age-difference argument of an opponent 20 years his junior.

"I feel like I'm 35, in everything I do," he said.