Rome - With a message that blends Christianity, motherhood and patriotism, Giorgia Meloni is riding a wave of popularity that next month could see her become Italy's first female prime minister and its first far-right leader since World War II.
Even though her Brothers of Italy party has neo-fascist roots, Meloni has sought to dispel concerns about its legacy, saying voters have grown tired of such discussions.
Still, there are nagging signs that such a legacy can't be shaken off so easily: Her party's symbol includes an image of a tricolored flame, borrowed from a neo-fascist party formed shortly after the end of the war.
If Brothers of Italy prevails at the polls on Sept. 25 and the 45-year-old Meloni becomes premier, it will come almost 100 years to the month after Benito Mussolini, Italy's fascist dictator, came to power in October 1922.
In 2019, Meloni proudly introduced Caio Giulio Cesare Mussolini, a great-grandson of the dictator, as one of her candidates for the European Parliament, although he eventually lost.
For most Italian voters, questions about anti-fascism and neo-fascism aren't "a key driver of whom to vote for," said Lorenzo Pregliasco, head of the YouTrend polling company. "They don't see that as part of the present. They see that as part of the past."
Still, Meloni is sensitive to international scrutiny about her possible premiership and prefers the term conservative instead of far right to describe her party.
She recently recorded video messages in English, French and Spanish that said the Italian right "has handed fascism over to history for decades now, unambiguously condemning the suppression of democracy and the ignominious anti-Jewish laws."
That was a reference to the 1938 laws banning Italy's small Jewish community from participating in business, education and other facets of everyday life. The laws paved the way for the deportation of many Italian Jews to Nazi death camps during the German occupation of Rome in the waning years of World War II.
Yet by keeping the tri-colored flame in her party's logo, "she is symbolically playing on that heritage," said David Art, a Tufts University political science professor who studies Europe's far right. "But then she wants to say, 'We're not racist.'"
Unlike Germany, which worked to come to terms with its devastating Nazi legacy, the fascist period is little scrutinized in Italian schools and universities, says Gastone Malaguti. Now 96, he fought as a teenager against Mussolini's forces. In his decades of visiting classrooms to talk about Italy's anti-fascist Resistance, he found many students "ignorant" of that history.
Only five years ago, Brothers of Italy - its name is inspired by the opening words of the national anthem - was viewed as a fringe force, winning 4.4% of the vote. Now, opinion polls indicate it could come in first place in September and capture as much as 24% support, just ahead of the center-left Democrat Party led by former Premier Enrico Letta.
Under Italy's complex, partially proportional electoral system, campaign coalitions are what propels party leaders into the premiership, not just votes. Right-wing politicians have done a far better job this year than the Democrats of forging wide-ranging electoral partnerships.
FILE - Leader of Lega party leader Matteo Salvini, Fratelli d'Italia party leader Giorgia Meloni and Forza Italia party leader Silvio Berlusconi at the end of their meeting in Rome, Oct. 20, 2021. (Photo by Claudio Peri/ ANSA / AFP)
Meloni has allied with the right-wing League party led by Matteo Salvini, who, like her, favors crackdowns on illegal migration. Her other electoral ally is the center-right Forza Italia party of former Premier Silvio Berlusconi.
Last year, her party was the only major one to refuse to join Italy's national pandemic unity coalition led by Premier Mario Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief. Draghi's government collapsed last month, abruptly abandoned by Salvini, Berlusconi and 5-Star leader Giuseppe Conte, who are all preoccupied with their parties' slipping fortunes in opinion polls and local elections.
In opinion surveys, Meloni is "credited with a consistent and coherent approach to politics. She didn't compromise," Pregliasco said, adding that she also is perceived as "a leader who has clear ideas - not everyone agrees with those ideas, of course."
She has apologized for the "tone" but not the content of a blistering speech she delivered in June in Spain to drum up support for far-right party Vox.
"They will say we are dangerous, extremists, racists, fascists, deniers and homophobes,″ Meloni thundered, in an apparent reference to Holocaust deniers. She ended with a crescendo of shouted slogans: "Yes to natural families! No to LGBT lobbies! Yes to sexual identity! No to gender ideology!"
Meloni slammed "bureaucrats in Brussels″ and "climate fundamentalism." Meloni, who has a young daughter, claimed that "the most censured" phrase is "woman and motherhood."
Abortion hasn't emerged as a campaign issue in Italy, where it's legal. But Meloni has decried Italy's shrinking birth rate, which would be even lower without immigrant women having babies.
At a rally of right-wing supporters in Rome in 2019, Meloni drew roars of approval when she yelled in a staccato pace: "I am Giorgia! I am a woman. I am a mother. I am Italian, and I am Christian. And you cannot take that away from me!"
Within days, her proclamation became fodder for a rap song's lyrics. While some saw that as a parody, Meloni loved it and even sang a few bars on a state radio program.
According to her 2021 memoir "I am Giorgia," much of her identity was forged by growing up in Rome's working-class Garbatella neighborhood. At 15, she joined a youth branch of the Italian Social Movement, the neo-fascist party with the flame symbol, and plastered political posters in the capital.
When she was 31, Berlusconi made her the minister of youth in his third and last government. But she soon blazed her own path, co-founding Brothers of Italy in 2012.
Both Salvini and Meloni say they are safeguarding what they call Europe's Christian identity. Salvini kisses dangling rosaries and wears a large cross on his often-bared chest, while Meloni's tiny cross sometimes peeks out from her loose-fitting blouses.
Her party staunchly backed Draghi's moves to send weapons to Ukraine, even as Salvini and Berlusconi, open admirers of Russian President Vladimir Putin, issued only tepid support. Meloni also defends the NATO alliance anchored by the United States, a fellow Group of Seven country. But she often views European Union rules as an infringement on Italy's sovereignty.
If Meloni's far-right forces dominate Italy's next government, there's concern about the support Italy will give to right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland "for their deeply conservative agendas″ amid fears about a "democratic backsliding" in the EU, Art said.
For her part, Meloni says she will "fiercely oppose any anti-democratic drift."