Italy's Berlusconi, Prodi face off in final TV debate before elections

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi and his center-left opponent squared off Monday in their last televised debate before weekend national elections determine whether the conservative media mogul remains in power.

With the April 9-10 elections expected to be close, both candidates were hoping to win over undecided moderate voters, a slice of the electorate that is estimated to be a double-digit percentage and might be key in swaying the vote.

Before the highly anticipated faceoff, Berlusconi said he would highlight differences with the center-left coalition. Center-left leader Romano Prodi said he would promote a message of unity.

Berlusconi, in office since 2001, has lost his shine recently, largely due to the country's stagnant economy. Opinion polls have shown his conservative bloc trailing, even though he contends that surveys commissioned by his Forza Italia party showed a virtual tie between the two coalition, reports AP.

According to ANSA, Monday night's televised showdown between the two men vying to be Italian premier had the nation's media buzzing, but several observers said it would make no difference at all to the election result .

Centre-right Premier Silvio Berlusconi and opposition leader Romano Prodi were to meet for a 90-minute head-to-head debate at 9.15 pm. It was the second of two encounters in the run-up to the April 9-10 election. "We're in the finishing straight now. The potential impact (on voters) is much lower than in the first meeting," said Marco Marturano, head of a political consultancy firm which has worked for centre-left leaders.

The first debate on March 14 drew 16 million viewers, a record for a political discussion. Many analysts said Prodi won on points, although Berlusconi and most of his allies denied that .

"This one just serves to motivate the two teams," added Marturano, saying that for Prodi this meant holding on to his 3-5% lead in the polls and for Berlusconi it meant ensuring his squad kept fighting till the end .


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