Billionaire Silvio Berlusconi is hoping for a decisive victory over centre-left rival Walter Veltroni in Italy's parliamentary election to boost the next government's chances of tackling a social and economic malaise.
Berlusconi has consistently led opinion polls by about 5 to 9 percentage points but up to a third of the 47 million eligible voters are expected to make their choice at the last minute before they vote on Sunday and Monday.
"To govern properly I need a huge majority, so that I can take difficult, unpopular decisions if needed," the centre-right leader, who is seeking a third term as prime minister, told La Stampa newspaper in an interview on Thursday.
At his last campaign rally in Rome, Berlusconi appealed to his supporters to go out and "convert" undecided voters.
"Get out there and do missionary work," he said, standing before Rome's Arch of Constantine, an impressive backdrop in the historic centre next to the Colosseum.
The crowd of around 3,000 gave him a rapturous reception.
One grey haired man held a placard which read: "Forgive me wife, I'm in love with a man -- Silvio!"
Luigi Todde, a 58 year-old retired electrician, said Berlusconi was his "idol" and his entire family would be voting for the former prime minister at this weekend's election.
"Berlusconi is the most intelligent man in Italy and he will certainly change the country for the better," Todde said, brandishing a flag reading "Berlusconi for prime minister."
The next prime minister faces a big challenge as the fourth biggest economy in the European Union continues to trail euro zone economic growth and is seen by the International Monetary Fund expanding by just 0.3 percent this year.
U.S. Ambassador Ronald Spogli told a seminar in New York this week Italy attracts less U.S. investment than any European country except for Portugal.
"If Italy, already the tail-end in per capita income and productivity, doesn't do more to boost growth, it risks falling into decline and losing influence in the world," he said.
Portuguese Nobel laureate and writer Jose Saramago says Italy has other woes, telling one newspaper it is "a sick democracy where corruption, mafia and crime prosper".
This has not cramped the style of media magnate Berlusconi, who was prime minister from 1994 to 1995, and from 2001 until 2006. He has said during campaigning that the left has "no taste in women" and promised a home-grown rescue bid for Italian airline Alitalia which is yet to emerge.
He is confident of a working majority in the lower house of parliament but has voiced fears of such a close contest in the Senate that he could be as weak as Romano Prodi, who quit as prime minister when his coalition collapsed in January.
"I need a margin of at least two dozen senators," said the 71-year-old leader of the People of Freedom (PDL) party, who might be lucky to secure a Senate majority half that size, polls show.
The man Berlusconi has named as economy minister if he wins, Giulio Tremonti, who held the job in his last government, does not underestimate the depth of the downturn.
"This is a crisis with a capital 'C'. I don't know if it will be like 1929, but we'll see," said Tremonti.
The 52-year-old centre-left hopeful Veltroni, former mayor of Rome, portrays himself as a breath of fresh air in Italian politics and compares himself to U.S. Democrat Barack Obama.
The reformed communist, a writer and film buff, promised to use 4 billion euros from fighting tax evasion to boost pay and pensions "to help families spend and relaunch internal demand to avoid the recession Bush's America is sending us as a gift".
Veltroni, whose Democratic Party is named after its American counterpart, enjoys the endorsement of actor George Clooney, who said on set in Rome he "speaks to young people, talks of hope and of a clean environment -- a rare thing in Italian politics".
Veltroni accused Berlusconi, who ran Italy for seven months in 1994 and from 2001-6, of poisoning democracy by undermining the traditionally untouchable head of state this week.
Berlusconi was criticised for speculating that if leftist President Giorgio Napolitano resigned -- his term lasts until
2011 -- his government would "give" the presidency of a chamber of parliament to the left to maintain the balance of power.
Berlusconi was also criticised for calling a convicted Mafia mobster, who once worked for him as a stable boy and died in jail in 2000, a hero for refusing to betray his associates.
Veltroni called this an "ambiguous message" and promised to "annihilate the Mafia, Camorra and 'Ndrangheta" -- the organised crime syndicates of Sicily, Calabria and Naples, respectively -- if he becomes prime minister.