By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News website, Genoa, Italy
Gianfranco Fini's conservative National Alliance (AN) party is a key coalition partner for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and is tipped to boost its share of the vote in Sunday's general election.
Fini has gone from militant youth to moderate conservative
It is the second largest member of the centre-right coalition and has come a long way from its post-fascist roots.
Foreign Minister Fini, a slick and polished performer, has propelled a once proudly marginal and politically hardline party into the mainstream of Italian politics.
He is Mr Berlusconi's deputy, often seen alongside him - but his manner contrasts sharply with that of the media mogul turned prime minister.
Italians say they find the confident but carefully chosen words, articulate manner and assured elegance of Mr Fini reassuring.
Back to the future
Indeed, it is often Mr Fini who tries to calm troubled waters after Mr Berlusconi's controversial outbursts.
"He is a highly capable politician, an able seaman who has navigated the high seas of politics since his youth," says Piero Ignazi, professor of comparative politics at the University of Bologna.
Internationally, Mr Fini, who graduated in psychology, has moved just as deftly.
A high-profile visit to Israel in late 2003 underlined how far he had come since declaring, in 1994, that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was the 20th Century's greatest statesman.
"We are taking responsibility for both the past and the future," he told Israeli MPs, adding that Italians could not condemn the past without admitting their role in it.
In granting asylum to Afghan Christian convert Abdul Rahman, who faced the death penalty in his own country, he scored another political coup, days before the Italian election.
The rise of the National Alliance is due, experts say, in no small part to the skilful political manoeuvres of its leader.
"In the first person," read AN election posters up and down the country, "to govern the future of Italy".
Recent surveys suggest AN will get almost 14% of the votes in the election, a gain of several percentage points on the 2001 result.
That would be no small feat in a country where a plethora of parties compete for political space and where corruption scandals have left many voters disillusioned.
NATIONAL ALLIANCE PLEDGES
Lower taxes for southern Italy
Double number of police on streets within a year
New 'fast-track' justice system
Crackdown on illegal immigration
Tax rebates for large, single-income families
This time AN may well scoop up the support of voters tired of Mr Berlusconi's showmanship but still fearful of the potential squabbling within a leftist coalition.
"The Right embodies the values of this nation, it will be a catalyst for change and modernisation, guarantee law and public safety, safeguard the rights of individuals and protect the fundamental role of the family," AN tells voters.
During his early political career, Mr Fini was an active member of the hardline neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), originally founded in 1946 on the ashes of Mussolini's crumbled ideology.
After heading its militant youth wing he was appointed party leader in 1987. In 1995, when the National Alliance was born - the result of a tortuous internal battle within MSI - he was chosen to lead the new party.
But his rise to power has accelerated as his opinions have become more measured.
"From the end of the 1990s, there has been a progressive shift within the National Alliance, but especially from Gianfranco Fini himself, from a hard-right position to a moderate conservative one," Mr Ignazi explains.
"Power can improve as well as corrupt. The experience can be transformative and force you to face reality and modify your position."
Campaigning on a platform of law and order, AN says it seek an "honest, serene, civil and secure" Italy.
Yet some question whether everyone in the party has followed Mr Fini's shift towards the centre. The party's youth movement and university wing, for example, successfully use the language of honour, identity and national pride to swell their ranks.
Mussolini's fringe neo-fascists are more symbolic than powerful
"They believe in the defence of identity, they are totally anti-immigration, they'll even go so far as saying that they support the idea of empire," says Enrico Deaglio, chief editor of the left-leaning Milan-based news weekly Il Diario.
Italy's unwillingness to critically examine and accept its own history, he says, means that many remain untroubled by the AN's shadowy origins.
According to Mr Ignazi, the presence of an active anti-fascist resistance during World War II, particularly in northern Italy, allowed some measure of self-redemption, leaving the question of fascism partially unresolved in the public psyche.
This is reflected in the presence of a very small coalition of hardline neo-fascist parties within the centre-right coalition, he says.
Led by the flamboyant actress turned politician Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of the dictator, the movements have only ever managed to win a tiny portion of the vote.
"They are fringe movements, not powerful but symbolic," Mr Ignazi says.
"We tend to forget the past, or rather put it to one side, rather than analyse it, especially when that past contains something as vast and difficult as fascism."