ROME Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, after months of dismissing accusations of cavorting with teenagers and prostitutes, on Wednesday acknowledged he was "no saint" but vowed to govern until the end of his mandate.
In his first public remarks since newspapers posted audio recordings of intimate conversations purportedly between him and an escort, a defiant Berlusconi sought to write off the scandal with one of his trademark quips.
"There are tonnes of good-looking girls and entrepreneurs out there," he said at the opening ceremony for a new motorway building site.
"I am not a saint, you've all understood that. I hope those at La Repubblica also understand it," he said, referring to the left-leaning daily which has led demands that he clear up aspects of his personal life.
Speaking of new public works to be inaugurated in 2013 -- when his mandate ends -- he said: "We will all still be around, because how could Italians do without us?."
The websites of La Repubblica and the weekly magazine L'Espresso have posted recordings of conversations they said were between Berlusconi and Patrizia D'Addario, an escort who says she and other women were paid to attend parties at Berlusconi's residence in Rome.
While Berlusconi's comments offered no specific admission, they did appear to be a change of tack in dealing with the scandal, particularly after newspapers around the world reprinted the transcripts in full or in part.
On Monday, his lawyer Niccolo Ghedini branded the tapes "totally unlikely and the product of the imagination" and warned that it was illegal to post or publish them.
POPULARITY SLIPS BELOW 50 PERCENT
Although Berlusconi has tried to make light of the controversy surrounding his private life, the possible political ramifications have been lurking in the background.
An opinion poll published on Tuesday showed his approval rating falling below 50 percent for the first time since he won a landslide election victory last year.
The poll showed that Berlusconi had lost four percentage points since May, when his wife filed for divorce, setting off a chain of disclosures about his private life.
The 72-year old conservative prime minister, who often boasts of his sexual prowess, has not denied that D'Addario went to his home, but has said that he did not know she was an escort and that he has never paid for sex.
D'Addario, 42, says she made the recordings during a night she spent with the prime minister on November 4, 2008 -- the date of U.S. President Barack Obama's historic election victory -- and during various telephone conversations.
She has handed the recordings to magistrates investigating a businessman, Giampaolo Tarantini, on suspicion of providing paid escorts to curry political favours for an enterprise in the southern city of Bari, from where D'Addario also hails.
In one of the conversations, re-published by all mainstream newspapers, a man purported to be Berlusconi tells D'Addario they should both take showers and whoever finished first should wait in "the big bed," said to be a gift from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
In another conversation said to be between Berlusconi and D'Addario the next day, he expresses surprise when D'Addario says she lost her voice, "because we didn't scream."
Other recordings involve conversations between D'Addario and Tarantini, with her saying she had expected to receive money but did not, and that Berlusconi had promised to help her solve a problem with a real estate deal.
Berlusconi has accused L'Espresso and La Repubblica -- part of the same publishing group -- of waging a subversive gossip campaign to oust him and has urged business leaders not to advertise in the group's publications.
The news group's lawyers filed a suit against him on Wednesday, alleging defamation, abuse of power and market abuse.
(Additional reporting by Massimo Gaia, Daniel Flynn; editing by Philip Pullella and Robin Pomeroy)