Walter Veltroni: The Italian Bill Clinton

In six years as mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni has calmed a notoriously fractious city built upon a 2,500-year-old infrastructure and centuries of ineffective management. He kept the budget in line, increased tourism and, after nearly a decade of stagnation, revved up the local economy, which has grown 6.1 percent since he took office, compared with 1.4 percent nationally. The mayor even brought back the kind of glitterati Rome has not seen since the days of La Dolce Vita in the 1950s, staging a 45th-anniversary party for the designer Valentino that actress Sarah Jessica Parker dubbed "the most glamorous fashion show of all time."

Now Veltroni, 52, hopes to bring his touch to the prime minister's office. In late June, he called for an end to the "angry conflicts and poison" of Italian politics, announcing to raucous applause his candidacy to lead the center-left's new Democratic Party, a fusion of the two largest parties in the ruling coalition government. The party primary is in October, and with the administration of Romano Prodi tottering, a national election could be just months away. If it were held today, the front runner would be Veltroni, who has been called an Italian Bill Clinton and the Tony Blair of the Mediterranean. The rise of this committed centrist, who is largely pro-business and relatively pro-American, represents another step in the march of moderate politicians that has brought Angela Merkel to power in Germany, and Nicolas Sarkozy to the Elysée Palace in France.

Allies and adversaries alike say Veltroni has embraced a moderate pragmatism that rises above the squabbling endemic in Italian politics. For example, he is a staunch supporter of gay rights and, as mayor, allowed a gay-rights parade to proceed in Rome against the Vatican's wishes. Yet he retains a strong relationship with the church, scoring points for the management of Pope John Paul II's funeral. He followed a similar path in his relations with the United States, advocating the use of the piazza in front of city hall to hold vigils for Italian soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like the rest of the Italian left, he also supported the withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq, and he en-couraged an antiwar demonstration timed for U.S. President George W. Bush's visit with Prodi. Yet he stopped short of participating himself. By contrast, opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi called the president his "best friend."

Like Sarkozy and Merkel, Veltroni derives his credibility in part from a certain outsider status. In a nation where political and business elites tend to come from the north, Veltroni, who grew up in Rome, is sympathetic to the plight of southern Italians. Despite a three-decade-long political career, and stints as vice prime minister and Culture minister, he is still considered a fresh face. And in a nation where citizens rarely see beyond their national tastes, Veltroni has a fondness for Anglo-American culture, sparking the comparisons to Clinton and Blair. He is a jazz fanatic, Hollywood movie buff and author of 17 books, including a nonfiction ode to his hero, Robert Kennedy. As mayor, he introduced a host of pro-business initiatives, from extending store opening hours to loosening regulations, which encouraged foreign investment. He has also taken an American-style approach to campaigning, including a national speaking tour.

His critics say his approach has a downside: Quaint neighborhoods have been overrun by tourist bars. They say Veltroni has allowed public infrastructure to decay so badly that Honda tests its motorcycle shock absorbers on Rome's cobblestone streets. Others doubt he can gain support in the north. Yet since Veltroni announced his candidacy, Prodi's approval rating has plummeted. Surveys show that the center-left's popularity would jump 11 percent with Veltroni as its leader.

Clearly, Italy wants someone to pull the nation together. The economy is stagnant; consumer confidence just hit its lowest point in a year. Italy has become a sad exception to the continentwide economic recovery, and its internal problems have prevented it from wielding more clout in the European Union. With an early election now likely, the center is rallying around the Democratic Party and Veltroni. In response, center-right opposition leaders are considering calls for a new leader to replace ex-prime minister Berlusconi. In this jockeying, some observers see the possible beginnings of a two-party or at least two-camp system that could reduce the chronic weakness of Italian coalition governments. Of course, Veltroni first has to win his own party leadership. But he is offering some hope for stability, and in Italy, that would be radically new.