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Rome - Italy's Silvio Berlusconi showed off his famous stage skills at a lively election rally in Rome on Thursday, where star-struck supporters spoke admiringly of the scandal-tainted former premier.
Hundreds of fans young and old packed a concert hall for the event, as Berlusconi celebrates a sharp rise in the polls that has put him a close second to centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani.
“Silvio! Silvio! Silvio!” his supporters shouted at the stadium-style event, some of them waving flags reading “Young Italy” while others chanted: “Whoever doesn't jump up is a communist!”
“He's always got an ace up his sleeve!” said Federica, a 25-year-old in heavy make-up who came with her mother to see the irrepressible billionaire tycoon and three-time prime minister.
“He has a real charisma about him. You can criticise his private life, but that should not be mixed in with his political role,” she said.
The 76-year-old Berlusconi charmed the crowd with his showman stage presence, peppering his speech with jokes about Bersani and his own advancing age.
“I looked in the mirror today,” he began - as some female supporters shouted out “You're beautiful!”.
“And I thought to myself, they don't make mirrors like they used to!” Berlusconi continued.
Berlusconi, whose centre-right coalition is polling at around 28 percent against Bersani's 34 percent, vowed: “We will overtake them!”
Berlusconi said his own polls showed a difference of just 1.7 percent with Bersani's coalition.
He promised to slash taxes and told the crowd: “Who got us into this recessionary spiral? Europe, because it forced everyone to implement austerity.”
“This austerity is suicidal,” he said.
“Do you want a government that is subject to the diktats of (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel?” he asked. “Noooooo!” his supporters shouted back.
“We'll relaunch the economy... With our liberal credo we can change course and turn it 180 degrees,” he told them.
His speech also returned to familiar campaign themes - the multiple warnings that his leftist opponents are all communists and that Italy's justice system is biased and out to get him.
It finished up with the playing of his campaign anthem: “Thank God Silvio's here!”
The former cruise ship crooner built up a construction and media business empire before launching himself into politics in the early 1990s.
Even his political opponents recognise Berlusconi, who had been written off by many observers when he stepped down in November 2011 after two decades in politics, remains a formidable campaigner.
The Rome rally was held in a 1 000-seat auditorium a stone's throw from the Vatican, decorated with giant screens bearing the symbol of his People of Freedom (PDL) party.
Luciana, a 53-year-old housewife, said she was pleased about Berlusconi's rise in the polls.
“It's a lot to do with his way of doing things, his presence and his charisma. We thought his time was up but he is surprising everyone with this rise in the polls. He's unstoppable!” she said.
Gerardo Cancieri, an elegantly dressed 72-year-old, was one of many supporters who said they were impressed by Berlusconi's promise to get rid of IMU, a much-hated property tax introduced by his successor, Prime Minister Mario Monti.
“We've been following Berlusconi for ages. I believe in what he says... He will keep his new promises. The left should go to hell,” he said.
Fifty-year-old Paola was more on the defensive.
“He is defending ordinary people like us against those who are getting fat, like bankers,” she said.
“There seems to be a very strong anti-Berlusconi climate. I'm here for Berlusconi, is there anything wrong with that?” - Sapa-AFP