Italian Premier Mario Monti late this week criticized his flamboyant predecessor Silvio Berlusconi for demonstrating "a certain volatility in judgment" and urged the center-left leader to jettison extremists who he said will make the country's path of reform more difficult.
Mr. Monti has radically changed tone in recent days. He has dropped his neutral technocratic stance as he seeks a second term, this time at the helm of a coalition of centrist parties in February elections. He is now directly challenging leaders who until a few weeks ago backed his non-elected government.
Analyst Stefano Folli said Monti's rhetoric has become "very incisive and even aggressive" in a bid to claim more voters in the center by chipping away at support for the two main political forces on the left and right.
Monti, an economist and former European Union commissioner, stepped down as head of a government of experts last month after Berlusconi's party withdrew its support, and is heading a caretaker government until the vote.
The election campaign is shaping up into a race with Monti in the center, Berlusconi to the right and Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani on the left, along with forces belonging to a movement founded by comic-cum-political agitator Beppe Grillo.
Already a senator-for-life, Monti is not formally running for a seat in Parliament. But he is campaigning under the banner of small centrist parties that he said might be called something like "With Monti for Italy."
Monti lashed out at Berlusconi during an interview on RAI state TV after the former premier, who is facing several legal and sexual scandals, asserted that Monti lacks credibility.
Monti shot back that this "is the judgment of a person who has demonstrated a certain volatility in judgment."
He also took on Bersani, whom he urged to show courage to "silence the conservatives in his party" who Monti said prevented his government from making more progress on reforms, and who could hamper the work of a future government.
"The true challenge is between those who want to preserve existing structures and those who want to innovate a bit more," Monti said.
Bersani — who may wind up working with Monti in the future, depending on the outcome of the vote — avoided a direct confrontation, but said he would not censure any members of his party.
A recent survey by Il Sole 24 Ore puts Bersani out front with 36 percent of the vote with Monti in second with 23 percent. Berlusconi with the Northern League, his former allies who have not yet committed to cooperating with him, would be third with 22 percent. The survey published on Dec. 30 has a margin of error of 2.7 percent.
The complexity of Italian election law means that any winner may need to form an alliance with outside forces to form a solid majority in both houses of Parliament.
"People are looking at Monti with interest," said political analyst Roberto D'Alimonte who writes for il Sole and teaches at Rome's LUISS university. "Whether this interest will be converted into votes, and the rate of conversion, we have to see in the future."
D'Alimonte said Monti's sharpened tone shows "the guy has become a campaigner. He surprised us."