Walter Veltroni is clocking up the miles. Italy’s centre-left candidate for prime minister in next month’s general election has taken to the road in a campaign bus to tour the country in an attempt to narrow the large opinion poll lead of Silvio Berlusconi, his rightwing rival.

The bus idea may have been borrowed from Republican Senator John McCain’s Straight Talk Express in the 2002 US presidential campaign, but it is this year’s Democrat hopeful Barack Obama who is the model for the leader of Italy’s own Democratic party.

“Obama is innovative, unifying and post-ideological,” says Mr Veltroni aboard his state-of-the-art “Pullman” crossing Tuscany, having completed about a quarter of his planned 12,600km tour before the mid-April polls.

Mr Veltroni, who has written the preface to the Italian edition of Mr Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, has a tough sell.

There is no doubt, as he and Mr Berlusconi both say, that Italians are fed up with their country’s feeble economy and distrustful of its political elite.

But after a lifetime in politics – he was a Rome city councillor for the Communist party at the age of 21 – and now heading a party that belongs to a desperately unpopular coalition government, Mr Veltroni’s task is to present a convincingly reformist message.

With both parties proposing cuts in taxes and government spending, the electorate is also having a hard time in telling the difference.

Mr Veltroni’s strongest point is that Mr Berlusconi is 71 years old and has already served twice as prime minister with a weak economic record. “Where else in Europe do you find someone running in their fifth campaign?” asks the 51-year-old Mr Veltroni.

On the stump, he ridicules Mr Berlusconi’s campaign slogan exhorting Italians to “get back up again”, saying people get up to work hard every day. Loud applause greets his declaration that the Democrats have ditched their coalition partners, the Communists and Greens, and “liberated” from this burden would run a stable, slimmed-down government.

His campaign events have attracted several thousand. But many of those who turn out, such as on a recent swing through the leftwing heartland of Tuscany, are elderly. According to many, the absence of young people is because they are backing the Communists.

Perched up on a stage in a suit and tie, Mr Veltroni looks rather old-fashioned – in marked contrast to Mr Berlusconi’s more casual and populist image. But still, he is a strong, convincing speaker, connecting with language that is readily understood, sincere and with a sense of humour.

His campaign is fast-paced, often involving a daily schedule of three or four speeches – always without notes – interspersed by regular dashes back to Rome.

Just as he has no campaign manager and directs operations with a small staff – “I don’t believe in spin doctors” – Mr Veltroni is commanding the crucial task of drawing up his party’s list of election candidates.

Young, unknown women present the image of innovation. Experience and an appeal to a broader electorate are filled by a former general, a cancer specialist and an anti-Mafia prefect.

To some Italians this comes across as a bit like “big brother” politics wielded by one dominating personality. To some extent this is what Mr Veltroni wants to project – that he commands authority and, as mayor of Rome for the past six years, he knows how to manage.

And Mr Veltroni shows his pragmatic side in saying he would have no problem in dealing with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president and soon-to-be prime minister. “Who governs respects the other who governs,” he says.

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