ROME -- If opinion polls are right, he's the man headed to win Italy's elections this month.
No, not Silvio Berlusconi, the flamboyant media mogul chased out of office by Europe's debt crisis and attempting a comeback. Nor Mario Monti, the star economist-turned-premier credited by financial circles with saving Italy from ruin.
Grabbing fewer headlines but a greater share of support: Pier Luigi Bersani — a cigar-chomping former communist with a resume thick with unglamorous posts and almost zero name recognition outside Italy.
His high forehead burrowed in a frown, Bersani came across as looking so stern in early campaign posters that aides had to scramble to replace them with ones showing him smiling. Still, he handily beat the easy-going, rakishly handsome young mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, in a primary last fall of their Democratic Party to become the center-left candidate for premier.
'The opposite of Berlusconi'
And that might point to his appeal: Italians seem to find his complete lack of glamour refreshing after the rambunctious Berlusconi years.
"His strongest point is he's the opposite of Berlusconi," said Jonathan Hopkin, a political scientist at the London School of Economics. "Berlusconi is a showman. He (Bersani) is not entertaining."
The ascent of Bersani — whose camp in late January enjoyed roughly 33 percent support against some 27 percent for the Berlusconi side — also has much to do with his ability to draw on the former Communist Party's entrenched network of activists, funding and economic connections, such as business cooperatives. The publication of poll results is banned in the last two weeks before elections in Italy.
But in the counterintuitive world of Italian politics, Bersani has long embraced economic liberalization in several stints in government.
As industry minister, Bersani waged an uphill battle to free up such areas of the economy as energy, insurance and banking services.
Even the smallest reform efforts brought resistance. Operators of Italy's gasoline retail network called a strike in 2007 when the government decided to allow supermarkets to sell gasoline. Similar protests frustrated plans to auction off taxi licenses and to allow supermarkets to sell nonprescription drugs such as aspirin. Years later, even Monti had no luck trying to persuade the powerful lobby of pharmacists to surrender their hold on nonprescription drugs.
As transport minister, Bersani branded unions "irresponsible" when an airport ground workers' strike combined with an air traffic controllers' strike on the same weekend train workers walked off the job.
He also worked to undo the center-left's image as supportive of a sprawling state economy, especially in the energy sector. He championed legislation that ended a 37-year-old monopoly by then state-controlled electric utility ENEL.
Born in 1951 — 15 years to the day after Berlusconi — Bersani grew up in Emilia Romagna, the affluent north-central region at the heart of Italy's so-called "red belt." There, citizens in cities like Bologna voted for decades for Italy's communists, and later, for the communists' post-Soviet heirs.
Bersani's website shows him posing in a childhood photo with his parents against a backdrop of Esso gas pumps. His father, a car mechanic, ran a gas station.
In his autobiography, Bersani recounts an episode from his childhood that points to what might drive him as a leader.
He once organized a strike of fellow altar boys after the church pastor refused to divvy out to the tips that families left for them after weddings or baptisms. "The pastor would seize the money and buy sweets and nougat bars for us at Easter and Christmas. That didn't seem fair to me."
So during one ceremony, the altar boys took off their cassocks and walked out of the church. "The next Christmas, the pastor gave the boys an equal share of the tips of that year, stipulating one condition: that our mothers knew the exact figure we got."
Fairness is a quality Bersani promises to promote if elected premier: "At the first Cabinet meeting, we have to think about those who have nothing to eat," he told a campaign rally.