ROME -- Silvio Berlusconi issued his party's candidates for April's election with guidelines on how to face the media on Thursday, advising them to describe his rival as a lightweight who copies Barack Obama.
With a poll lead of some 7 percentage points ahead of Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, Berlusconi told candidates for his centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party they had to win over the large chunk of the electorate which is undecided.
"We have to convince the undecided with a great election campaign," he told reporters before heading into a closed-door meeting with candidates running for parliament. The media tycoon's campaign slogan is "Back on your feet, Italy!."
Candidates -- many of whom have never stood for office before, coming instead from business and the media -- were handed paper bags containing a T-shirt, party flag and a 30-page list of points they should make to reporters.
Stressing the PDL's plans to cut taxes and boost the economy, the notes say Veltroni's Democratic Party has similar policies because he stole them from the centre right.
"Veltroni has copied everything he can. He's copied half (of his) manifesto from our documents," read the notes, which urge candidates to mock the 52-year-old Rome mayor for comparing himself to U.S. Democratic presidential contender Obama.
"Veltroni often cites Barack Obama and also systematically copies his speeches," says the manual which lists ways to differentiate the two.
"Obama ran the Harvard Law Review -- the first black lawyer to have that prestigious post. Veltroni was editor of l'Unita (formerly the daily newspaper of the Italian communist party).
"Obama is a candidate for the party founded by Thomas Jefferson. Veltroni is a candidate for the party founded by Romano Prodi," it said, referring to the outgoing prime minister who handed leadership of the centre left to Veltroni.
With Italy's economy taking a turn for the worst, both sides are portraying themselves as change from the past, despite the fact that Berlusconi has been prime minister twice and Veltroni has been a career politician since the 1970s.
The government has slashed its 2008 growth forecast to 0.6 percent from 1.5 percent and inflation is at its highest since the euro currency was introduced -- facts Veltroni blames on a global downturn but Berlusconi says are due to 20 months of centre-left government.
The latest opinion poll, published in left-leaning daily La Repubblica, put Berlusconi just under 7 points ahead of Veltroni but over a third of voters are still undecided on how to vote.
Much will depend on how voters react to the personalities of the two leaders: whether they prefer the calm, intellectual Veltroni or the brash, feisty Berlusconi who is always ready with quips that can be both charming and offensive.
When asked on a TV chat show by a young woman how a young couple could afford to set up home if they did not have a secure income, the billionaire replied: "As a father, I would advise you to marry Berlusconi's son, or someone similar."
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