O, SILVIO!

I promise! From now on, two months of absolute sexual abstinence!" Like an athlete saving himself for the big game, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made the ultimate campaign promise recently by vowing celibacy until the country's April 9 elections. That earned him the on-air blessing of Italy's popular television evangelist, Massimiliano Pusceddu, who thanked the P.M. for opposing gay marriage and upholding family values. Three days later, Mr. B was back. "Just joking," he told another TV interviewer. "I don't [abstain] at all!"

Welcome to the Silvio Berlusconi show. Whether farce or smart politics, scarcely a day passes without another installment. He's a guest on talk shows. He calls into gardening programs, bemoaning aphids in the flower beds of his Sardinian villa. Recently he made a cameo appearance during a traffic report, blasting opposition involvement in a banking scandal.

So far, the blitz seems to be working. Once trailing far behind his opponent, Romano Prodi, recent polls show Berlusconi narrowing the gap to five or six percentage points, or less. Can he keep it up? Berlusconi owes his edge to his hold on 90 percent of Italian TV, via his own media empire or through his government's control of state television. But come Feb. 11, when Italy's Parliament is officially dissolved, networks must offer equal time to other candidates. Luckily for Il Cavaliere, that coincides with the release of a single from his new album of Neapolitan love songs, "Chocolate and Samba." No joke.