ROME Caretaker Prime Minister Mario Monti, leading a centrist bloc in Italy's national election, appealed to his main rivals on Sunday to agree to a television debate before next week's vote.
The former economics professor and European commissioner has struggled during his first-ever political campaign, and polls show him in fourth place and with no momentum.
In particular, the record of his 14 months in office has been attacked from all sides for having relied too much on tax increases and he is seen as having failed to capitalise on his expertise and credibility, undermined when he entered politics.
"We have the duty to not limit ourselves to individual appeals" to voters, Monti said in a video posted on his Facebook page. "We must debate our ideas in front of the electors."
Monti directed his proposal specifically to centre-right coalition leader Silvio Berlusconi and centre-left chief Pier Luigi Bersani, who are the main contenders for power.
Bersani held a 5.7-percentage-point lead over Berlusconi, and Monti's bloc trailed in fourth place with 13.6 percent behind comic Beppe Grillo's 5-Star Movement, according to a median of polls published before February 9, when the blackout period for surveys began.
Bersani and Berlusconi both have agreed in principle to a debate, but Berlusconi has ruled out one that includes candidates who he says have no chance of winning, including Monti and former anti-mafia magistrate Antonio Ingroia, leader of the newly former Civic Revolution party.
Bersani, who has a lead to protect, has said he would be open only to a six-way debate that included other prime ministerial candidates. Neither Bersani nor Berlusconi immediately responded to Monti's appeal.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Mark Heinrich)