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Berlusconi's teflon touch in question

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi delivers his address during the bike fair in Milan, Italy, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010. Berlusconi dismissed calls Tuesday to resign over his involvement with an underage Moroccan runaway _ and even created a new uproar by claiming it was better to love beautiful girls than gays. His comments sparked outrage from gay rights groups and fueled new calls for him to step down. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi delivers his address during the bike fair in Milan, Italy, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010. Berlusconi dismissed calls Tuesday to resign over his involvement with an underage Moroccan runaway _ and even created a new uproar by claiming it was better to love beautiful girls than gays. His comments sparked outrage from gay rights groups and fueled new calls for him to step down. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni) (Antonio Calanni - AP)

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By VICTOR L. SIMPSON
The Associated Press
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 10:08 AM

ROME -- Is this time different? Silvio Berlusconi has survived prostitution scandals, howling gaffes, and seamy courtroom dramas - only to bounce back with a billion-dollar grin on his face.

Italians have taken to shrugging off their leader's misbehavior as the foibles of a man accustomed to "la dolce vita" - the sweet life that they themselves aspire to.

But the tale of Ruby - an underage Moroccan runaway whom Berlusconi freed from police custody - has generated strong shudders that some predict could mark the beginning of the end of the media tycoon's political career.

For one thing, the scandal appears to raise the bar even of Berlusconi's ample capacity for mischief-making: many see it as a clear-cut case of abuse of power that would have swiftly spelled the end of any other leader of a Western democracy.

Instead of being chastened, Berlusconi shocked even the jaded Italian electorate by declaring it's "better to love beautiful girls than gays" - adding homophobia to accusations of anti-Semitism stemming from the leader's recent quips about the Holocaust.

Berlusconi, 74, has also seen his fragile center-right alliance slowly disintegrate over the past months - with his one-time key ally Gianfranco Fini now openly suggesting that Berlusconi step down. But while polls show his popularity is sagging and many see the Ruby episode as "serious," he retains much of his support among conservative voters while the opposition is divided.

"He may survive this one, but he's getting weaker and weaker," said Franco Pavoncello, professor of political science at John Cabot University. "This couldn't happen in normal, advanced democratic republics."

Berlusconi has succeeded largely because people see in him a reflection of Italian society itself. And his comment about girls and gays taps into a deep sexist and homophobic streak that runs through the country.

But many even in his traditional support groups now feel he's disgracing the nation.

"I'm disgusted," said Anna Sidozzi, 70, in an age bracket that has generally backed Berlusconi. "I hope this last phrase about gays will help us to get out of the tunnel. I feel ashamed."

Already engulfed by the Ruby scandal, Berlusconi on Thursday blasted what he called a campaign of "mud based on lies" following new allegations of sex with a prostitute.

Prosecutors in Palermo confirmed to The Associated Press that they had recently interrogated Nadia Macri, a call girl who reportedly claims Berlusconi paid her euro10,000 for sex during an orgy at his villa in Sardinia two years ago.


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