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FILE -- In this file photo taken on Nov. 9 2007, center-left coalition leader Pierluigi Bersani arrives for a meeting in Milan. 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.
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 one 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.

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 Bersani also has risked alienating that base through his pragmatic approach to Italy's crisis.

Bersani has been Monti's most loyal backer in Parliament, which was dissolved because Berlusconi yanked his support for the government. Bersani staunchly endorsed tough-minded reforms needed to win back confidence in Italy, even though they went against the grain of the left. In particular, his support for raising the retirement age and making it easier to fire workers broke longstanding taboos in the progressive camp.

Monti looks set to play kingmaker rather than king, as he and his centrist allies have been notching only about 15 percent support. He has repaid Bersani's loyalty by taunting him throughout the campaign about the left's traditional ties to militant unions.

But in the counterintuitive world of Italian politics, Bersani has long embraced the economic liberalization role in several stints in government.

As industry minister under ex-premier Romano Prodi, 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 cab licenses and to allow supermarkets to sell nonprescription drugs, like aspirin. Years later, even Monti had no luck trying to persuade the powerful lobby of pharmacists to surrender their hold on nonprescription drugs.

Bersani, as transport minister, branded transport 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.

It all means that despite some of the harsh election rhetoric, Bersani has a surprising amount in common with Monti—raising the possibility of a reformist government with Bersani as premier and Monti in a top economic post.

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.

Bersani was a key force behind the transformation of the post-Communist party that was the political child of former Communist leader Massimo D'Alema, following the Soviet collapse. Even as a young man, he says in his autobiography, ''in my head, the Soviet Union had always been synonymous with oppression."

Bersani helped create the current Democratic Party, a force which draws inspiration from U.S. President Barack Obama's own Democratic party. Notably, his brief autobiography on his website makes no mention of his roots in the Italian Communist party.

Since becoming party leader in 2009, Bersani's has tried to unite the left's frequently squabbling factions.

That could be mission impossible: The Democratic Party's leaders bring disparate backgrounds, ranging from left-of-center former Christian Democrats to former ex-Communist militants.