Berlusconi and Prodi exchange insults in debate

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The Independent Online

Gripping the plexiglass table like a drowning man, he stopped himself from scribbling furiously, he avoided vomiting figures like a one man bandit coughing up coins, and he got in several low blows ­ describing his opponent as a "poor fellow," a "useful idiot", and a "dummy".

Mr Prodi, candidate of the centre-left coalition, once again looked as if he had overdosed on Prozac, and showed a preference for airy phrases over anything in the way of concrete proposals. Asked what if anything a Prodi government would do about abortion, he told the nation he would advance "an active politics for the family, a happy politics of the family". Given that his coalition's 13 parties span ex-Christian Democrats, Communists and anti-Church libertarians, coming up with formulas that keep everybody happy must be hard.

Mr Berlusconi is defending the record of a government that began with a crushing majority and promised the earth and finished five years later with zero economic growth and a ballooning public deficit. His standard answer to this dilemma is variants on the Harold Macmillan line "You've never had it so good" ­ except when Macmillan said it, it was true.

As a distraction he focuses on the "150 Communists" in Mr Prodi's coalition who will, if the left win, he insists, make mincemeat of nice Mr Prodi, the left's "useful idiot", its "dummy".

The toughest questioning returned repeatedly to the question of where on earth the resources would be found to pull Italy out of its present hole. Mr Prodi again harped on how his party would clamp down on tax evasion, which he said amounted to ¤200bn per year ­ "one third of that would balance our books," he said. Mr Berlusconi doubted (and most Italians must agreed) that he would achieve that as "tax evasion has been around always". He himself punted on digitalisation of government activity as the panacea. Hardly more convincing, really.

Like the previous clash, this one was conducted according to strict American-style rules. Mr Berlusconi looked scarcely happier submitting to them than last time, repeatedly running over time and trying to shout down his opponent ­ in vain, because when not speaking his microphone was off. At one point Mr Prodi, showing his class, quoted Andrew Lang's witticism against Mr Berlusconi: "He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts, for support rather than illumination." "Who are you calling a drunk?" came Mr Berlusconi's muffled, infuriated voice. " You are the drunk! I am the Prime Minister!"

Into the vacuum of opinion polls that reigns in Italy during the last two weeks of the election campaign, plopped one pristine factoid yesterday: seven out of nine of the girls fielding Italian sex lines plan to vote for Mr Berlusconi and his House of Liberties centre-right coalition. The factoid came courtesy of Mr Berlusconi himself. And the research was carried out by the Prime Minister in person! "You know the way it is," he remarked, "when it's too late I can't get to sleep..."

If the factoid demonstrates one thing is that this Prime Minister is a man who cannot abide sticking to the rules. But he got to the end of last night's debate without storming out, and probably emerged the narrow winner.