ROME Silvio Berlusconi's center-right coalition is gaining ground ahead of next month's elections, which could make it harder for Italy's left to form a stable parliamentary majority, polls showed on Sunday.
The center left still looked on course to get most seats after the February 24-25 vote and lead efforts to tackle recession and unemployment in the euro zone's third-largest economy.
But days after Berlusconi's appearance on a critic's television show attracted almost 9 million viewers, a survey by the Tecne research institute for SkyTG24 showed the former prime minister's alliance on 26 percent overall, up 1.6 percent compared to Saturday.
His center-left rivals, led by Pier Luigi Bersani, were still far ahead with 37.8 percent, though that was down 0.8 percentage points compared to the previous poll. The centrist grouping of outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti fell 1.3 points to 14.5 percent.
"I believe we are on a good path to get back all the people who voted for us in 2008 and also to convince some more. We sincerely think we have the possibility to win," Berlusconi told the Domenica Live program on his own Canale 5 TV channel.
His image will be under close scrutiny on Monday when the nightclub dancer who is the main witness in the sex case against him is due to testify in a Milan court.
One of his lawyers said on Saturday he was considering asking for the trial to be suspended until after the election.
On Sunday the media mogul's People of Freedom (PDL) party unveiled its logo for the vote, with the words "Berlusconi President," written in bold beneath stripes in the colors of the Italian flag.
The use of his name surprised some Italians as Berlusconi said last week that he would withdrew as candidate for prime minister as the price of a pact with the pro-devolution Northern League.
League leader Roberto Maroni said he was not concerned by the logo and that the words just reflected the fact that Berlusconi is the head of his own PDL party, rather than suggesting he would seek his fifth term as premier.
LEADING IN LOMBARDY
A separate survey in the Corriere della Sera on Sunday showed the center-right alliance was leading, with 35.7 percent support, in Lombardy, home to Italy's financial capital Milan.
If Berlusconi does win the northern region, that would make it more likely that Bersani's Democratic Party (PD) will be forced to seek a power-sharing deal with Monti's centrists.
The center-left bloc made up of the PD and its leftist allies had 32.3 percent support, the poll by the ISPO institute showed. Lombardy has more seats in the 315-member Senate than any other region so is one of the keys to control of the upper house.
The bitter experience of the last center-left government under Romano Prodi, which collapsed less than halfway through its term in 2008 because its wafer-thin Senate majority disappeared, underlines the importance of the race.
The PD is expected to win control of the lower house, helped by a complicated electoral system that guarantees the biggest party a 54 percent majority of seats, but the Senate make-up is decided by separate battles in each region.
The PD has pledged to stick to public finance targets that Monti has agreed with Italy's European partners and says it will maintain his broad reform course if it wins the election, but it also wants greater emphasis on social justice and growth.
Monti has criticized some elements of the left as hostile to reform, prompting increasingly acerbic responses from Bersani and other center-left leaders, but relations between the two sides have been much more cordial than those with Berlusconi.
Neither side has said openly that it would form an alliance if the center left cannot control the upper house and many on the left are deeply opposed to Monti's austerity policies.
But failure to gain outright control of the Senate would leave Bersani with little choice.
(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)