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* Monti helped save Italy from debt crisis
* But as election campaigner, he has been ineffective
* Seen coming fourth in election but could play key role
* Still finds support among business elite
By Gavin Jones
ROME, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Mario Monti has put his image as an independent technocrat at risk by joining the hurly-burly of Italy's election campaign but investors hope he will retain a key role in government after the vote, whatever the outcome.
Monti's centrist bloc is expected to come a lowly fourth in this weekend's election, which polls suggest will be won by the centre-left, but it may still be needed to help form a stable government.
Whatever happens, the former economics professor will be remembered for helping to save Italy from a perilous debt crisis thanks to his personal credibility and decisive action to shore up public finances.
Opinions differ over the merits of his policies, but in just one year of office he restored Italy's international standing and made progress in reforming key areas such as pensions and the labour market.
He also won the admiration, if not the affection, of most Italians, who appreciated his professorial manner and expertise even while they felt the pain of his tax hikes.
All that may have led him to overplay his hand at the end of last year when, after months of denial followed by weeks of indecision, Monti announced that instead of leaving front-line politics he would seek a second term.
The aura of the respected, non-partisan technocrat vanished almost overnight and at the age of 69, Monti embarked on an unlikely new career as a campaigning politician, a role for which he immediately seemed strikingly ill-suited.
His attempt to present his "Civic Choice" as a breath of fresh air on Italy's political scene has been undermined by his choice of coalition allies, political veterans many Italians see as typical representatives of old and discredited parties.
At the same time his campaigning style has wavered uneasily between maintaining an austere, authoritative image and trying to appear more likeable by cuddling puppies, downing beers and playing stiffly on the carpet with his grandchildren.
He has also appeared uncomfortable and out of character trading insults with his opponents and has committed a number of gaffes, including suggesting that German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not want his centre-left rivals to win the election.
Such efforts have reaped little reward. The most recent polls put Monti's alliance in fourth place with 13 percent of the vote behind Pier Luigi Bersani's centre-left, Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo.
Persistent murmurings since a poll black-out two weeks before the vote suggest that Monti is losing even more ground, mainly in favour of Grillo.
SAVAGED BY BERLUSCONI
Clearly in difficulty, Monti has transformed his policy positions to try to improve his fortunes, with escalating promises of tax cuts which seem out of line with his record of fiscal rigour while in office.
But after being widely revered as prime minister he has been savaged as a candidate, especially by Berlusconi who has put his renowned campaigning skills to good effect, reeling off data to show how his policies have hurt the economy.
"Berlusconi has attacked and destroyed Monti's image in the eyes of the Italians," said prominent pollster Nicola Piepoli.
Yet despite all this, investors inside and outside Italy still see the former European Commissioner as an anchor of stability and believe his coalition offers the best prospects for the kind of structural reforms that Italy's chronically stagnant economy needs.
It is very possible that a fragmented result will mean Bersani needs to join forces with Monti in order to govern.
What this would mean for Monti remains to be seen. When he entered the race he said he aimed to remain prime minister and virtually ruled out the idea of serving as a minister under anyone else. But his many supporters will hope that he can swallow his pride and agree to serve as economy minister.
Otherwise he may have a chance of succeeding Giorgio Napolitano as state president after the election or, perhaps more likely, of taking a top job in the European Union.
The positions of European Commission president held by Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council President occupied by Herman Van Rompuy both fall vacant in 2014.