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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 March 2006, 14:01 GMT
The quiet Italian makes his case
By Ben Richardson
BBC News, Trento, Italy

For someone who is trying to topple the longest serving Italian government since World War II, Romano Prodi goes about his business in a very quiet manner.

the leader of the center-left L"Unione coalition Romano Prodi
Mr Prodi's election phrase is "Government with gravitas"

In the lead up to his latest stop on the election road-show, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone in Trento who knew he was coming.

There were no posters announcing his arrival, no call for a show of strength in the main square of the town that nestles at the feet of the Dolomites and professes to love the man they call the Professor.

Instead, Mr Prodi chose to address some 500 people in a meeting hall near the train station.

If Italy's current Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a master of playing to the crowd, often courting controversy with promises of celibacy and comparisons to Christ, Mr Prodi is presenting a more demure image.

Politics, he wants Italians to understand, is a very serious business.

"It's a strategy, there is no doubt," said Cristian Maines, a 29-year-old lawyer who is earning his final qualification at a local firm.

"I have seen him speak before, and he is much quieter now."

Leading a broad-ranging left wing coalition called L'Ulivo, Mr Prodi's attempts to engender calm and focus are understandable with the general election looming on 9 April.

'Fighting like cats and dogs'

According to recent polls Mr Berlusconi was trailing Mr Prodi by about 4% even before the prime minister performed poorly in a televised debate and stormed off a TV programme because he disagreed with the line of questioning.

Since then Mr Berlusconi has been criticised by key coalition members and it seems his grip on power is slipping.

However, this is Italy and, for all his quiet confidence, Mr Prodi knows there is a long way to go.

It's not difficult to start a conversation about politics in Trento, a city that is proud of its left-wing, agricultural and working class roots.

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, left, and his center-left coalition election opponent Romano Prodi
Mr Berlusconi and Mr Prodi took part in a recent TV debate

But getting a consensus on who will win the election is almost impossible.

A 22-year-old cakemaker says he will vote for Mr Berlusconi because the government helped him find a job.

Sergio Baroldi, a 52-year-old factory worker, says he would rather die than vote for Mr Berlusconi, but then adds that politicians are all as bad as each other, "lining their pockets and fighting like cats and dogs".

Matteo Conchi, a 38-year-old hospital worker, will vote for Mr Prodi but would be tempted to back the government if it had someone other than Mr Berlusconi at its helm.

This split personality is nothing unusual in Italy, where depending on which polls you believe, one in four Italians are undecided on who they will vote for.

Despite their best efforts not to sound too cocky, Mr Prodi's supporters are very aware that they have a good chance of seizing power, and by the time he takes the stage in Trento the theatre is full to bursting.

Standing room only

All the seats are taken, with supporters standing in the aisles and those that could not get into the main room have jammed themselves into the foyer.

It's an eclectic mix of wind-swept farmers, urbane couples, families, grandparents, students. The conversation buzzes with talk of Mr Berlusconi's latest appearance.

Then the clapping starts, drowning out the first cords of the song Volare, and Mr Prodi makes his entrance.

Italian leader of the center-left L'Unione coalition Romano Prodi
Mr Prodi is campaigning hard ahead of the 9 April election

But this is no rowdy rent-a-mob and instead of lifting the roof, they provide a warm welcome that dies down after a few moments. Forget the razzmatazz, this meeting is about policy and the right type of government.

Sitting on a chair, hands crossed over his stomach, Mr Prodi steadily explains his plans for government on the key issues of the war in Iraq, pensions, the economy, unemployment, crime, the family and keeping Italy's young engaged with society.

There are no sound-bites, no sharp phrases. What little humour there is is usually at the expense of Mr Berlusconi.

On the pavement afterwards, the buzz is greater than it was inside as supporters debate policy, take long tugs on their cigarettes and wait to wave goodbye to the man they hope will be their next prime minister.

The prospect of getting close to their political hero has made a number of young women giggly, and when Mr Prodi finally emerges amid a phalanx of minders and press, they practically swoon.

With election day edging ever closer and a rival who is unlikely to go without a fight, Mr Prodi will be hoping the rest of Italy proves as susceptible to his bookish charms.




SEE ALSO:
Profile: Silvio Berlusconi
10 Mar 06 |  Europe
Italy's economy shows growth sign
09 Sep 05 |  Business
Country profile: Italy
22 Feb 06 |  Country profiles



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