By VICTOR L. SIMPSON
ROME (AP) - When Silvio Berlusconi resigned after dominating Italy's political scene for two decades, he left a country in financial shambles and a personal legacy tarnished by sex and corruption scandals.
Commentators called it the end of an era.
Eight months later, the political world is abuzz with signs that the 75-year-old media mogul is plotting a return to power that even his closest allies had considered impossible.
Even as his one-time friend, now bitter foe Gianfranco Fini appeared incredulous in a television interview Thursday night - saying "Italians no longer believe in miracles" - Berlusconi's allies were talking him up.
"He's our strongest candidate," said Angelino Alfano, a former justice minister previously considered as Berlusconi's heir apparent.
Berlusconi himself has yet to commit. But his friends are now openly calling him a candidate and spreading reports that business leaders are pushing him to enter the race for elections next spring. He reportedly has designed a new symbol with a patriotic touch for his party - a kite in the Italian tricolor.
The billionaire businessman with a reputation for rebounding from setbacks was apparently keeping his supporters - and potential ballot-box opponents - in suspense, for now.
Excitement had been building among his backers that he might formally announce his candidacy at a political meeting Friday at a Rome hotel. Instead, after hours of waiting, Alfano, secretary of the Freedom People party that Berlusconi created, told reporters that Berlusconi "sends his regards" because he wouldn't be coming due to an unspecified "commitment."
So what's changed from the November night when he left the presidential palace by a back door following his resignation to avoid jeering demonstrators outside? The arrival of an increasingly unpopular austerity program aimed largely at reversing the excesses of his era.
Berlusconi, a three-time former premier, has always claimed to be attuned to the popular mood, such as abolishing the property tax on first homes to spur his victory in 2008 elections. His successor at the head of a technocrat government, economics professor Mario Monti, has given Italy an air of respectability in European and international circles but his economic recovery package is causing more pain than growth.
In what has become a symbol of that pain, Monti restored the property tax in one of his first acts as premier.
As Monti's approval sinks, so are Italy's economic prospects.
On Thursday, credit ratings agency Moody's Investors Service downgraded Italy's government bond rating two notches on concerns that deteriorating financial conditions in Europe will lead to a sharp rise in borrowing costs. At the same time, Italy's industrial association warned that the nation was mired in recession with no sign of recovery.
One of Monti's chief economic advisers, Corrado Passera, called Moody's downgrade "unjustified," saying it failed to take into account what the Monti government has done.
Monti made clear this week he has no intention of seeking office after his term ends next spring.
The newspaper La Repubblica, one of Berlusconi's staunchest opponents, claims the possibility that the media mogul might come back "terrorizes Brussels," referring to the European Union that has been demanding reforms from debt-laden Italy. It said many in Brussels fear Berlusconi would undo Monti's reform program, although his party has been supporting it in parliament.
Italy's leading newspaper Corriere della Sera explained the reason behind enthusiasm from his allies. It said Berlusconi's camp has figures showing his party could win as much as 28 percent of the vote with Berlusconi on the ticket compared to 10 percent without him. Nearly 30 percent would not be enough to win the election, but could make Berlusconi a major player in any coalition.
It's not that Berlusconi has been out of the public eye. His allies in the media circulate photos of him jogging to stay in shape, holding family reunions and looking after his AC Milan soccer team. Meanwhile, his media foes have gleefully shown him boarding his corporate jet accompanied by a bevy of beautiful women.
Berlusconi, however, has made only occasional appearances at his trial in Milan on charges of having sex with an underage woman and then using his office to try to cover it up. Witnesses have testified about spicy parties at Berlusconi's villa, but both he and the Moroccan woman have claimed they never had sex. In Italy, defendants are not required to attend their trials.
On the economic front, he has let himself be quoted as saying Italy should leave the common euro currency and print its own money, only to backtrack, leaving it unclear what his financial rescue plan might be.
"There is more talk in Germany of a return to the mark than in Italy of a return to the lira," he told a German newspaper.
Last year, months before he resigned, Berlusconi said he would not run again and designated Alfano as his successor at the head of his party. Now Alfano is leading the chorus of supporters asking him to take the lead.
"It's the worst (possibility)," said former school teacher Luciana Schirru, echoing many other people interviewed in Rome. " I hope he won't run and that it was the heat that gave him this idea. We are living a period of total crisis, but at least as a country we have credibility at a European level.
"If he comes back, we won't even have that."
AP reporter Paola Barisani contributed from Rome
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