Italy's Berlusconi enters lion's den to close gap ahead of vote

Thu Jan 10, 2013 6:27pm EST
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By Steve Scherer and Gavin Jones

ROME (Reuters) - Seeking a fifth term as Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi took his election campaign into risky and unfamiliar territory on Thursday when he appeared on a television program run by some of his fiercest critics.

Desperate to close a wide gap with the center-left less than seven weeks before the vote, Berlusconi surprised many observers when he said he would attend a talk show hosted by a journalist who has made a career out of criticizing him.

The 76-year-old media tycoon is far more accustomed to appearing on his own television channels, where the questioning is anything but challenging and he is seldom interrupted.

"I love playing away games," Berlusconi was quoted saying in a tweet on his campaign's Twitter page before the broadcast, and another tweet said, "In a few minutes, president Berlusconi enters the lion's den".

Italy's most proven political campaigner and savvy media mind appears to have made the right choice ahead of the February 24-25 parliamentary election.

Berlusconi successfully made some of his key campaign points and deflected thorny questions about "bunga bunga" sex parties, which he denies staging, and his claims that he was the victim of an international plot to oust him from power.

Berlusconi resigned in 2011 as borrowing costs soared and he faced a sex scandal involving an underage prostitute, and Mario Monti took his place to save Italy from a disastrous Greek-style debt crisis that threatened the existence of the euro.

Although the journalist, Michele Santoro, had his show on the state broadcaster canceled after Berlusconi accused him in 2002 of making "criminal use" of his program, all seemed forgiven as the two engaged in a mostly friendly tit-for-tat throughout Thursday's broadcast.   Continued...

Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appears as a guest on the RAI television show Porta a Porta (Door to Door) in Rome January 9, 2013. REUTERS/Remo Casilli