By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's far-right League leader Matteo Salvini staged rallies across Tuscany on Friday, looking to pull off a potentially stunning electoral victory against the left in the picturesque region.
Seven regions are up for grabs in a vote spread over two days on Sept. 20 and 21, with an alliance of rightist parties poised to make a string of gains over Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's ruling coalition members, according to polls.
Underlying the importance of Tuscany, a left-wing stronghold since World War Two, Salvini focused his final campaign efforts on the wealthy region, which is centred on Florence, with six rallies planned through the day accompanied by a media blitz.
"For the first time in 50 years, the battle here is open," he told a square full of supporters in Pisa.
Salvini, whose anti-immigrant League is the most popular party in Italy but languishes in opposition, failed in his bid to seize another leftist bastion, Emilia-Romagna, in February.
But he has toned down his overtly populist rhetoric in recent weeks and presented a youthful image at the polls, putting forward Susanna Ceccardi, 33, as his candidate against the 61-year-old Eugenio Giani, a veteran of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which forms part of Conte's coalition.
'ENERGY AND DRIVE'
"After the coronavirus crisis, Italy doesn't need to be run by people at the end of their political career. They need energy and drive," Salvini said on Friday.
When a blackout was imposed on opinion polls two weeks ago, Giani was a fraction ahead of Ceccardi, but League politicians say they believe the two are now neck-and-neck.
In the other regional races, the right is expected to hold onto Liguria and Veneto and take the central Marche from the centre-left. The PD also risks losing Puglia in the south but should hold onto Campania, which is centred on Naples.
Tuscany is seen as the main battleground, with PD leader Nicola Zingaretti likely to face pressure to step down if the party loses its historic fiefdom, PD insiders say.
Old party allegiances die hard in Italy and Zingaretti will be hoping they prevail this weekend.
"My family and I vote for the left because it is the lesser evil," said Maurizio Pinzi, 56, a petrol pump attendant in the Tuscan town of Montepulciano. "The League is making gains because the economy is going badly, but Salvini is a loudmouth who only talks about immigrants."
(Additional reporting by Giselda Vagnoni in Montepulciano; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)