Last debate between Prodi and Berlusconi

Premier Silvio Berlusconi and his center-left opponent ended in a virtual tie in their last debate less than a week before a national election, with the conservative media mogul scoring points on a surprise pledge to cut housing tax, analysts said Tuesday. The prime-time debate on state-run broadcaster Monday was often tense and largely focused on tax plans, a sensitive issue for Italians already nervous about a perceived decline in their standard of living.

"Second-Round Tie," titled moderate daily La Stampa, in line with other Italian newspapers. Analysts expressed doubts, however, that the leaders were able to draw in undecided voters a slice of the electorate that might sway what is expected to be a close election April 9-10. "The leaders convince their electorate but not the undecideds," titled leading daily Corriere della Sera in an article by Renato Mannheimer, one of the country's top pollsters.

"Although the debate appeared more lively than the previous one ... it's unlikely that it pushed many people to go to the polls," Mannheimer wrote. 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 coalitions.

Berlusconi scored points on a proposal to cut the ICI housing tax on the first house. "To us, the house is sacred like the family, and that's why we shall abolish ICI," Berlusconi said in final remarks. "Yes, you got that right, we shall abolish ICI." Some experts expressed doubts over the feasibility of the promise. But analysts said the surprise blow was decisive to allow Berlusconi to tie the match with Prodi, who had appeared measured in deflecting the premier's criticism over the center-left's tax plans.

Prodi insisted that an inheritance tax he plans to partially reintroduce would only affect the wealthiest, which he described as "those who have several million euros (dollars)." He made an appeal for unity and harmony in his final appeal to voters. Responding to the only foreign policy question in the debate, Prodi said that he would pull out Italian troops from Iraq "as soon as possible" if his coalition wins the general elections.

"When we go to the government we'll decide for a speedy pullout of the troops, in secure conditions, talking with the Iraqi authorities," he said, adding that this would be done "as soon as possible." Berlusconi, defying strong domestic opposition, supported the U.S.-led war and sent some 3,000 troops to Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003 to help rebuild the country. The government is now pulling out the contingent, and has said the withdrawal would be completed by year-end.

The U.S.-style debate was the second and last between the two candidates. It was being conducted with rigorous rules that include a fixed amount of time for each answer and a ban on filming each candidate's reaction when the other one is speaking. Berlusconi performed poorly in the first debate held in mid-March and watched by 16 million viewers, or about a quarter of Italians and was outshined by Prodi, who is known for his soft-spoken style. Berlusconi, usually an aggressive TV speaker, lamented the rules were too strict and didn't allow for a lively confrontation. On Monday night he interrupted Prodi several times, reports the AP.


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