ROME, April 7 -- With simultaneous rallies in Rome and Naples, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and opposition leader Romano Prodi wrapped up one of the most acrimonious electoral campaigns in Italian history on Friday.
Insults and earthy outbursts, especially by Berlusconi and members of his coalition, were common during the eight-week contest. The voting that begins Sunday will be a rematch; Prodi, who has led in the most recent polls, defeated Berlusconi in 1996.
The prime minister is a media magnate with a flair for the public stage and speaking his mind. He is running on a platform of anti-communism and tax cuts.
Prodi, a former economics professor with a low-key style, has countered with a promise of "serious government," an allusion to the many gaffes of Berlusconi's five years in office and the abiding stagnation of the Italian economy.
The prime minister is one of President Bush's staunchest allies and has sent 3,000 troops to Iraq. The deployment was unpopular, but Berlusconi blunted criticism by pledging to bring the troops home by the end of 2006. Iraq has been largely a non-issue in the campaign.
Prodi says he will pull Italian troops out of Iraq "as soon as possible."
Once a fresh face in Italian politics, Berlusconi, 69, has undergone a makeover in office, with the help of plastic surgery, a hair transplant and high heels. Italy's richest man, he depicts himself as the victim of a conspiracy by communists, journalists, businessmen, bankers and the judiciary.
On Thursday, he called for U.N. election monitors to come to Italy. "With all the newspapers, with television stations behaving the way you've seen," he said, "you bet they should come to defend us from these men who are experts at rigging."
The Berlusconi family's Mediaset conglomerate owns the country's three major private television networks, and, as the head of the government, Berlusconi indirectly influences the three public stations.
This week, he caused an uproar by using a vulgar word to describe supporters of Prodi's Union coalition, which comprises nine parties, including a Roman Catholic group, socialists, environmentalists and communists.
"I have too much esteem for the intelligence of Italians to think that there are so many coglioni who would vote against their own interests," the prime minister told a shopkeepers' union, employing a slang word for male genitalia.
Some of Berlusconi's allies in his coalition, the House of Liberties, have delivered similar insults. Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of the World War II dictator Benito Mussolini and the leader of a neo-fascist party, used a pejorative term last month to refer to a transgender communist candidate.
Berlusconi has defied soaring budget deficits to make several tax-cut pledges, including a promise to abolish property taxes that is especially controversial because city governments rely on such revenues for their funding.
"Berlusconi is fighting for his political life," said Gianni Riotta, deputy editor of the newspaper Corriere della Sera. "He knows he might lose, and so he has adopted a 'no prisoners' strategy."
In office since 2001, Berlusconi heads Italy's longest-serving government since World War II. But he finds himself in the unusual position of underdog, with his coalition trailing Prodi's by 3.5 to 5 percentage points in polls conducted two weeks ago, the last time results were permitted to be published under election rules.
He has attacked the credibility of Prodi and his communist allies and promised to keep the government's hands out of Italians' pockets. "Prodi wants to tax our savings," Berlusconi said during a recent televised debate, adding that the opposition's fiscal plans would destroy the middle class.
Berlusconi, whose holdings in addition to the television networks include publishing enterprises, real estate and the AC Milan soccer team, defeated Francesco Rutelli, a former Rome mayor, in 2001 in part because many Italians believed his success in business would enable him to tackle Italy's economic problems.
However, many of those problems remain. Last year, Italy's economy hardly grew at all, and the budget deficit rose to 4.1 percent of gross domestic product, one of the highest in Europe.
Berlusconi blamed the problems on past governments, competition from Asia and inflation allegedly caused by the introduction of the euro common currency in 2002.
His anti-communist campaign has been undermined by opposition from some of the country's leading industrialists, who have sought further tax cuts and deregulation. In a recent appearance at a meeting of Confindustria, Italy's powerful employers' federation, Berlusconi faced a hostile crowd and endured derisive whistles and shouts of "Shame on you!"
"There is a structural crisis in Italy's economy, and Berlusconi didn't understand this," said Tito Boeri, a professor of economics at Milan's Bocconi University. "Italy's businessmen are disappointed, because, objectively, his policies did not match their expectations of a businessman-premier."
Prodi, 66, was president of the European Commission, the European Union's executive body, from 1999 to 2004, then returned to Italy to head the opposition. He blames Berlusconi for damaging the country's image and has pledged to revive the economy.
"These last five years of government have left us in a divided country," he said in his closing comments Monday night. "A divided country can't win the challenges of this world."
Prodi's mild-mannered personality has earned him the nickname "parish priest," but he has not been above delivering the occasional insult himself. In the debate on Monday, Prodi paraphrased the Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw to compare Berlusconi to a drunkard who hangs onto a lamppost to hold himself up.
Mostly, however, he has based his campaign on promises of competent government and an implied end to Berlusconi-style buffoonery. "Italians deserve more seriousness and consideration," Prodi said Monday, echoing his campaign slogan: "For a More Serious Government."
Some analysts have expressed doubt that a Prodi government, made up of a broad spectrum of political parties, could take decisive steps to revive Italy's economy. "This coalition is far too heterogeneous to be able to govern," said Giovanni Sartori, a political scientist and constitutional scholar. "It may hold, because power holds together, but whether there will be the capacity to govern effectively, that is doubtful."
Another question mark, given Italy's budget problems, lingers over how Prodi would fund his promises to cut payroll taxes and provide new tax credits to families with young children.
Prodi has said he could make ends meet by reining in tax evasion, reinstating an inheritance tax abolished by Berlusconi and raising the capital gains tax. He has had difficulty reassuring Italians, who already endure some of Europe's highest tax rates.
"Taxes are relevant to voters," Sartori said of Prodi's campaign strategy. "If the left has been so silly as to get cornered on the taxes, that will be the issue. The first rule of politics is not to fight an election promising to raise taxes."