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Now to Italy, where national elections are a little over a month away. A key issue is austerity and measures the government has taken aimed at reducing the country's overwhelming debt. But it wouldn't be Italy without colorful politics to go along. Much attention is focused on two key candidates for parliament - the disgraced right wing former prime minister, Sylvio Berlusconi, is running again. Also in the race, the caretaker prime minister, Mario Monti, who waited until late in the election before he decided to run.

Here's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: A few weeks ago, 12 million Italian TV viewers tuned in to watch Oscar-winning comedian Roberto Benigni lampoon the former prime minister.

ROBERTO BENIGNI: (Foreign language spoken)

(LAUGHTER)

POGGIOLI: He's back. He's actually running again. Silvio, have mercy on us, Benigni pleaded, this is your sixth campaign.

This is how the increasingly cosmetically enhanced 76-year-old media tycoon responded.

SILVIO BERLUSCONI: (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: You Italians need me. I do not hold back when I feel the duty to help those in need.

Berlusconi is widely seen as an untenable candidate. He's been found guilty of corruption, and he's waiting for the verdict on charges of having paid for sex with a minor. But analyst Giulietto Chiesa says Berlusconi has hard-core supporters willing to forgive his so-called bunga bunga orgies and diplomatic gaffes.

GIULIETTO CHIESA: In the last 20 years, we had a very deep moral degeneration of the country. Mr. Berlusconi has obtained the very important result. He has changed the mood, not of the majority of the country, but of a large chunk of the population of Italy.

POGGIOLI: In a country with high tax evasion, many voters see Berlusconi as champion of their vested interests. That means sharply lowering - if not eliminating - a slew of property, gasoline and value-added taxes the Monti government imposed to try to lower Italy's massive debt. The country now has one of the highest taxation rates in Europe and it will rise more this year.

Berlusconi has revived his populist promise to cut back taxes. Appearing constantly on TV, he uses vitriol against his successor, calling him a pygmy leader and a liar who takes orders from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In response, Monti adopted the ironic rhetorical style of Mark Antony in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."

MARIO MONTI: (Through translator) If Berlusconi believes I am not very credible, that means I'm not very credible. I respect his judgment. He's an authoritative person.

POGGIOLI: The tall, erudite Monti stands in sharp contrast to the short, pugnacious Berlusconi. But Monti, too, has sharpened his tone and seems to be enjoying the fight, reminding voters that it was Berlusconi who led the country to the edge of the financial abyss. Monti has also taken to the airwaves and has embraced Twitter as a campaign tool, telling his followers he feels like a pioneer.

His main aim is to bring members of civil society - young people and women in particular - into parliament. And he promises that none of his candidates will have issues with the law.

Gabriele Italiano is a young entrepreneur who has spent time working abroad. He's a strong Monti supporter.

GABRIELE ITALIANO: I'm in favor of the person. I'm in favor his professionalism, of his knowledge of the European Union mechanisms that I think are the base for the future of Italy, even though the majority of the people here do not understand the importance of them.

POGGIOLI: In fact, the Italian middle-class has suffered the brunt of Monti's austerity policies lower salaries and pensions, higher taxes and rising unemployment. And despite strong support for Monti from the Vatican and the international community, it's not surprising his popularity is dropping. Polls give him and his allies just 15 percent of the vote, compared with 20 percent for Berlusconi.

But the election is a three-way race and the expected election winner is the leftist Democratic Party. Political analyst Roberto D'Alimonte says the PD is staunchly pro-Europe.

ROBERTO D'ALIMONTE: The PD is not seen and will not do anything that will jeopardize Italy's position in the European Union, in my opinion, or jeopardize what Mr. Monti has achieved.

POGGIOLI: Most analysts believe the outcome will be a coalition between Monti and the Democratic Party, which wants more emphasis on growth stimulus and jobs creation. Only the final results would determine which party gets the prime minister job, and the upper hand in setting policy.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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