Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi turned on his celebrated skills as a communicator on Friday in an 11th-hour plea to millions of undecided voters, wrapping up a bitter campaign against challenger Romano Prodi two days ahead of Italy's general election.
Berlusconi, who has been consistently trailing in the opinion polls to his center-left opponent Romano Prodi, oozed confidence when asked if he would win the election.
"Of course. I'm sure. I'm pretty sure," he said flashing a reassuring smile after a triumphant rally in front of 10,000 flag-waving supporters in this southern port city.
He said the country faced a fundamental choice between "an Italy of tax, an Italy of pessimism, an Italy of insults and an Italy of lies," led by the left, and "an Italy of freedom and rights, of tolerance, respect for all, well-being, above all an Italy of love -- that's our Italy."
He said Italy could choose between freedom guaranteed by his government and a center-left which idolized "Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot," and Cuba's Communist leader Fidel Castro.
Prodi leads a motley group of parties which includes liberals and Communists -- an alliance which Berlusconi, a billionaire businessman who reviles communism, has taken every opportunity to denounce.
Berlusconi and Prodi -- who was making his final appeal to voters at a simultaneous rally in Rome -- were concluding an especially acrimonious campaign ahead of the elections today and tomorrow.
Berlusconi's supporters, who turned the city's Piazza del Plebicito into a sea of flags of his Forza Italia party, gave the ebullient 69-year-old prime minister an ecstatic welcome and cheered his every phrase as he played them like an orchestra.
"We are all here together like a real army of freedom," he told the crowd, who chanted "Silvio, Silvio, Silvio" as the media magnate's manicured features gleamed on a giant screen on the stage.
The prime minister had marched out onto the stage to the strains of Italy's national anthem, and immediately began on his theme of defending Italian "Christian values" and the defense of the traditional family.
Flanked by his coalition allies, Gianfranco Fini of the National Alliance and UDC Christian Democrat leader Pier Ferdinando Casini, he reiterated his intention to abolish a council tax on primary homes, a surprise promise made in a tense TV debate with Prodi in the final week of the campaign.
"We believe that the state should be the servant of the citizen, and not the citizen the servant of the state," he said to roars of approval from his supporters.
His allies Casini and Fini chimed in, each in his turn ramming home the message that the left posed a threat to Italy's way of life, and would do little to improve the economy. A particular target was the center-left's plans to grant legal recognition to same-sex unions.
In Rome, meanwhile, Prodi appealed for unity before a throng of some 15,000 supporters in Rome's Piazza del Popolo.
"I want to address all Italians, a country that has been divided," said the 66-year-old Prodi. "We have a need, we have a desperate need for unity."
The mild-mannered former university professor -- a stark contrast to his flamboyant rival -- had arrived at the rally on the back of a motorcycle driven by an aide as the crowd shouted "Romano, Romano, Romano."
The former economics professor was flanked by leaders of key parties in his center-left Union coalition, including Piero Fassino of the Democrats of the Left and Franceso Rutelli, Margherita party.
Rutelli said earlier: "Next Monday will be the day that Silvio Berlusconi returns to the opposition and Romano Prodi will become head of government."
Prodi, a former prime minister as well as the European Commission's ex-president, was leading in the opinion polls by up to five percentage points before voter surveys were suspended two weeks ago under electoral rules.