Italy's Berlusconi in U.S., Seeking Votes Back Home

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, facing elections in April, visits Washington for a news coverage boost. He met with President Bush Tuesday and makes the rounds on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

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Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi addresses a joint meeting of Congress today. It's part of a whirlwind tour of Washington that began yesterday at the White House, where the Italian leader met with President Bush.

Both men have seen their poll standings decline because of opposition to the war in Iraq. But unlike the U.S. President, the Italian Prime Minister is up for reelection.

NPR's David Green reports.

DAVID GREEN reporting:

The two leaders appeared in the Oval Office, just as Iraqi authorities were reporting that dozens more people had been killed on another day of violence. Mr. Bush has always been known for his optimism on Iraq, but he told reporters that Iraq has reached a defining moment.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: And now the people of Iraq and their leaders must make a choice.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Translating in Italian)

President BUSH: The choice is chaos...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Translating in Italian)

President BUSH: ...or unity.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Translating in Italian)

President BUSH: The choice is a free society or a society dictated by the, by evil people who will kill innocents.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Translating in Italian)

GREEN: The President seemed eager to move things along. At one point he told the Italian translator she didn't need to continue.

President BUSH: So I look forward to a good, consistent review. You don't need to interpret this U.S. question.

GREEN: Berlusconi was asked if his thinking on Iraq has changed or whether Italy still plans to bring all Italian troops home in 2006. The Prime Minister said he believes Iraqi security forces are ready to take over.

Prime Minister BERLUSCONI (Italy): (Speaking in Italian)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Translating) So, as far as the Province which is under our control is concerned, we have 3,000 soldiers there. Troops which will be withdrawn by the end of this year, but we have trained 10,000 law enforcement people who can guarantee the respective peace.

GREEN: But it's possible that Berlusconi won't be in office to oversee the withdrawal. He faces a tough election on April 9th, and trails in the polls.

Charles Kupchan, a European analyst on the Council of Foreign Relations, says Berlusconi's first offense was to mount a media blitz.

Mr. CHARLES KUPCHAN (Senior Fellow, Council of Foreign Relations): He number one put himself on television, night after night, and he was able to do that because is the head of media companies that enables him to exercise influence over who they put on. And in the context of that effort to get attention to shake the trees, as it were, he called himself Napoleon, compared himself to Jesus.

GREEN: The Italian leader has denied that he compared himself to Christ, saying it was a misunderstanding.

But right now, he's having more trouble getting attention. As the election nears, Italian law requires equal air time for all candidates, unless one attracts news coverage on official business--such as a visit to the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Italian spoken)

GREEN: The anchor on this, Italy's highest rated news program, quotes Mr. Bush saying, "Berlusconi is a strong Prime Minister", and the video shows them together at the White House.

Indeed, Berlusconi hopes his time in Washington will keep him on the airwaves at home. He's not alone on counting on a boost from a road trip. President Bush lands today in New Delhi on a six-day tour of south Asia.

A new CBS poll this week shows Mr. Bush's approval rating at an all-time low of 34 percent; and while he's not running for reelection, lawmakers in his party are.

David Green, NPR News, the White House.

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