MILAN Silvio Berlusconi's supporters greeted him with adulation, chants and adoring cheers when he appeared at one of his final rallies before an election in five days, assuring the party faithful that victory was at hand.
The 76-year-old media magnate once again showed off his energy during a rally at Milan's exhibition centre on Monday night, regaling an enchanted crowd of around 1,500 supporters for at least 90 minutes with attacks on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and outgoing technocrat prime minister Mario Monti.
Despite a lurid sex scandal dogging the four-times premier and his regular off-colour jokes, many of his fans were women with no doubts about their hero's ability to pull off yet another political victory against the odds.
Pollsters say that despite an extraordinary fightback since entering the campaign in December, the conservative Berlusconi was still 4-5 percentage points behind the centre-left coalition when the last opinion surveys were published 10 days ago.
Italy bans the publication of polls in the two weeks before an election, but he told fans the tide had turned:
"I must give you some good news. Very good indeed. We have caught them up and overtaken them," said Berlusconi, dressed in an expensively tailored dark suit.
"I believe the election will bring many good surprises."
He was preaching to the converted.
"Our family always votes for Berlusconi: my husband, me and my children. Berlusconi is our only hope in life. How can you vote for anybody else?" said Giovannina Michelon, 74.
Another supporter, accounting clerk Stella D'Antonio, 42, told Reuters: "Silvio is really nice. I vote for Berlusconi because I still believe in him. He is a good man, a good prime minister, a good dad, a good grandfather.
"Why do we have to talk badly about him?"
D'Antonio said she had been to several parties where she had met Berlusconi, who had a brief early career as a singer.
Asked about his affairs and allegations that he held "bunga bunga" sex parties with aspiring starlets, she said: "It is women who throw themselves on him."
Berlusconi is on trial in Milan for having sex with an underage prostitute. Hearings are on hold until after the vote.
Although his sex and fraud scandals have sapped support for his centre-right party the People of Freedom (PDL), they have done nothing to undermine the faith of his most dedicated fans.
A lone heckler, who threw a paper dart bearing the words "You have ruined us", was roughly bustled out by marshals, pursued by indignant Berlusconi supporters yelling obscenities.
The rally had all the slick trappings associated with Berlusconi, a self-made billionaire and master communicator who has run rings around his colorless opponents, centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani and outgoing premier Mario Monti, in the charisma stakes.
Before he took the stage, the audience watched videos about his life from childhood to today, including an interview with his late mother saying she had told him as a child he would become something big.
They were shown segments about the successes of his Mediaset media empire and matches won by his soccer team AC Milan, both of which emphasize the rags to riches success story that is one of Berlusconi's biggest attractions for voters.
The national anthem was played as he climbed on the stage, beaming as the crowd chanted: "Silvio, Silvio, Silvio."
Cesare Morgantini, 37, who owns a fashion agency, said: "Since I started voting I have always voted for Berlusconi. I cannot vote for the left because I belong to a business family. We are big fans of the right. I am hoping for a great victory."
Berlusconi launched his familiar attack on Monti's tax hikes and on Merkel, accusing the German conservative leader of damaging the whole of Europe with austerity policies.
The rally was held jointly with the federalist Northern League, a vital ally for Berlusconi in winning potentially crucial Senate upper house seats in Italy's northern regions.
But League leader Roberto Maroni got little attention from the crowd and made only a short speech.
Undermined by the sex scandal, Berlusconi was forced from power and replaced by Monti, a former EU commissioner, in November 2011, as Italy slid towards a Greek-style debt crisis.
He spent much of the following year in the shadows as Monti restored Italy's international credentials and sharply brought down borrowing costs. The PDL slumped to around 15 percent in polls, compared to 38 percent when they won power in 2008.
But since returning to the frontline in December, Berlusconi has hoisted the party to around 20 percent, and the centre right overall to around 29 percent, compared to about 35 percent for the centre left, according to the last polls in early February.
On Tuesday, he renewed criticism of Europe's common currency policy that has struck a chord with Italians who bemoan their inability to regain competitiveness by devaluing, as they often did with the lira. "Some countries" could ditch the euro if the European Central Bank was not prepared to print more money, Berlusconi said, without specifying whether Italy might do so.
He has also whittled away at the left's lead with promises not only to cut a hated new property tax but to pay it back and create millions of jobs - policies ridiculed by his opponents.
(Writing by Barry Moody; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Alastair Macdonald)