ROME (Reuters) - From charismatic tycoon to lonely old man. Whatever the legal outcome of Italian prosecutors' inquiry into whether Silvio Berlusconi paid for sex with an under-age prostitute, the damage to his electoral appeal is devastating.
It will not come from Berlusconi's well-known penchant for young girls, but from the pitiful picture of a sad and gullible old man that emerges from the prosecutors' evidence and phone tapped conversations plastered over Italian newspapers for days.
The cultivated public persona of can-do dynamism, charm and even sexual charisma has been wrecked by the derisory comments of young showgirls discussing how ugly the prime minister is getting and how they can trick him into stumping up more cash.
"He's fatter than before, more dead than alive, he just has to cough up," transcripts of phone taps show one woman telling her twin ahead of one of Berlusconi's parties that both sisters are used to attending.
Berlusconi, 74, has laughed off calls for his resignation as madness. "I'm absolutely calm," he said. "I'm enjoying myself."
Indeed, the conservative leader has been written off many times since first becoming prime minister in 1994; but there is a growing sense that the latest scandal will be fatal to a man who has always been the epitome of the "image" politician.
"Berlusconi has become a figure of fun," said media and communications expert Klaus Davi. "He comes across as an old fool at the mercy of these girls and their relatives who use him as a sort of cash machine."
Hostile newspapers carry headlines such as "The end of the line" in Repubblica or "The tragedy of a ridiculous man," in Il Fatto Quotidiano. But greater harm may lie in the dismissive and pitying tone of editorials in several more neutral dailies.
La Stampa and Corriere della Sera both portray him as being easily duped by close aides and friends, and an article in Corriere della Sera likens him to an ATM machine used by cynical "friends" as well starlets in return for sexual favors.
Berlusconi's announcement he has a steady girlfriend has been universally ridiculed, with media speculating over which female politician or showgirl will volunteer for the role and dismissing the idea it could actually be true.
Milan magistrates allege that a "significant" number of young women prostituted themselves with Berlusconi at his homes, some dressing as nurses or policewomen to titillate him. Many allegedly lived in Milan apartments that he paid for.
A former beauty queen tells a party organizer, now accused of abetting prostitution, how she will give Berlusconi "a private health visit," dressed in nurse's white suspenders and a doctor's coat with nothing underneath, the transcripts show.
Another woman laughs as she reads out a letter to Berlusconi calling him "love," before asking him for more money. And another says that if he reduces the frequency of his parties "we'd better start stealing stuff from the house."
Berlusconi, who denies any wrongdoing, has to some extent ridden out previous sex scandals by portraying himself as a lovable rogue, but for most Italians being "fesso" (stupid) is less forgiveable than having a roving eye and being unfaithful.
Davi said the key risk for the media tycoon is that for the first time he will lose the backing of women, a traditional bedrock of his support, on a large scale.
"They could overlook the stories of his affairs with young girls, but they'll find it much harder to stomach this harem that is emerging, that is far more debasing to women."
Berlusconi can be expected to portray himself as a victim of people who exploited his generosity, but even this creates a lamentable image far removed from the figure of strength that should be associated with a leader.
The woman at the center of the probe, a Moroccan night-club dancer who was just 17 when she was allegedly paid to have sex with Berlusconi, paints the same sad picture.
"I don't think he can be very happy. I think he is someone who suffers a lot from loneliness," she told Repubblica.
Ominously, the latest scandal also comes at a time when he is far more politically vulnerable than before, as he no longer enjoys a secure parliamentary majority following a split with former ally Gianfranco Fini.
The government was already precarious, with many commentators expecting it to fall in the spring.
Another sign of changing attitudes toward Berlusconi came at the end of a popular political affairs program on Tuesday evening, when the anchorman announced that the prime minister had phoned in to intervene but he had refused the call.
He said Berlusconi was welcome to appear on the show at any time but could not expect to intervene on his own terms. Berlusconi has a history of calling in to such shows and is not accustomed to having his attempted interventions declined.
Editing by Ralph Boulton