Poll position: Berlusconi out front in race for PM

Voter recognition issue for Veltroni

ROME -- The first opinion poll eyeing Italy's upcoming elections show controversial media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi with a commanding lead against his likely opponent -- though pollsters warned that opinions can change quickly in the early stages of an election battle.

The polling firm Opinioni said it will report late Thursday that some 47% of Italians say they know Berlusconi and have a positive opinion of him. Opponent Walter Veltroni polled just 32% when the same questions were asked about him. The poll, which was released to The Hollywood Reporter in advance of its official release, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5%.

"A 15-point advantage is significant," Opinioni co-director Maria Rossi said in an interview. "Things can still change significantly, but at this point circumstances favor Berlusconi more than Veltroni."

Both men have strong media ties. Berlusconi, a three-time prime minister, is the controlling shareholder of broadcast and cinema giant Mediaset. While Veltroni, a former culture minister and well-known film lover, is the founder of the three-year-old RomaCinemaFest.

Officially, both men are just getting underway. Berlusconi officially kicked off his campaign Monday, announcing a 10-point plan for government, while Veltroni formally resigned as mayor of Rome on Wednesday, clearing the way for his run for office. Elections are set for April 13-14.

The new vote was necessitated by a government crisis that came to a head Jan. 24, when Romano Prodi resigned as prime minister after losing a no-confidence vote. Efforts to set up an interim government failed when Berlusconi refused to support the idea, setting the stage for a new vote Berlusconi feels he can win.

Opinion polls suggest he may be right. Pollster Rossi said that the major factors working in Berlusconi's favor are that he is well known, that his deep pockets allow for a well-financed campaign and that he was a constant critic of the Prodi government, which saw its approval levels drop to an anemic 13% before Prodi resigned in January.

Veltroni is hurt by the fact that he is not as well known outside Rome, where he has been a popular mayor since 2001. But as the campaign moves forward, Rossi said Veltroni is likely to gain in the polls as he becomes better known elsewhere.