, ROME, May 6 – A combattive talk show appearance by a Silvio Berlusconi to reject his estranged wife’s charges of "frequenting minors" suggests the Italian leader fears political fallout from their public row, analysts said Thursday.
"What is certain is that the prime minister is aware of the seriousness of the crisis (and wants to) reassure his electorate," said Stefano Folli of the financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore.
The conservative Berlusconi, 72, blamed the row on a media-fuelled "left-wing plot" to convince his already estranged wife Veronica Lario that he had a romantic link with an 18-year-old aspiring model.
"I don’t frequent minors. Veronica fell into the trap of the left and some of the press," Berlusconi said on the talk show watched by a record 2.7 million viewers.
With his appearance on the popular Porta a Porta talk show, "this affair has fallen into the public domain," Folli said.
Writing in the daily La Repubblica, editorialist Curzio Maltese said Berlusconi may have been particularly shaken by a reprimand from the Italian Catholic daily Avvenire for his "self-declared weakness for actresses in the bloom of youth."
The paper called on the three-times prime minister, a self-made billionaire, to mend his ways.
"Berlusconi has made an original move, going to (television presenter Bruno) Vespa to repair the damage from the bishops’ attacks," Maltese wrote as elections to the European Parliament loom in a month.
The communist newspaper Il Manifesto, under the headline "Poor Silvio" and a photograph of the prime minister holding a handkerchief to his eyes, wrote: "Berlusconi is playing the victim, he should get Bruno Vespa to create an operetta."
Berlusconi claimed the left was "jealous" of his high approval ratings, himself estimating his popularity at 75 percent.
The media tycoon reiterated calls for his estranged wife Veronica Lario "to say that she was wrong" to accuse him of "cavorting with minors" — in reference to him attending the 18th birthday party of a friend’s daughter.
Lario has also clashed with her husband over his choice of inexperienced but attractive female election candidates.
News reports Tuesday said that Berlusconi and Lario, a former actress 20 years his junior, had chosen the lawyers who will represent them in divorce proceedings.
Speculation over whether she will seek damages from her husband, whose family’s fortune is estimated at 6.5 billion euros (8.7 billion dollars), is rife in Italy’s press.
Berlusconi reportedly fell for Lario when she bared her breasts during a performance of a play, "The Magnificent Cuckold," in Milan in 1980.