Raffaele Fitto is a man in a hurry.
The black limousine with darkened windows hurtling through the gathering darkness hits 100 mph as it rushes him to his next campaign stop.
With barely two weeks to go before Italy's general election, Fitto had just inaugurated his party's headquarters in Bari, the regional capital of his native Puglia, the "heel" of Italy's boot.
Yet the party he leads, which was founded only in December with the odd name of Noi con l'Italia (NcI, roughly: We're with Italy), could make a crucial difference to the outcome of the vote on Sunday.
The main pollsters agree that the only electoral alliance with a chance of winning an absolute majority in the next parliament is the one forged on the right by Silvio Berlusconi, a former prime minister.
Vowing to clamp down on illegal immigration and introduce a flat-rate income tax, Berlusconi and his allies have gained in the polls as the center-left Democratic Party (PD), led by another former prime minister, Matteo Renzi, has lost ground.
If none of the contenders wins an outright majority, a broad coalition, perhaps led by the incumbent prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, an urbane and competent man who seems broadly acceptable to almost everyone, may be the only way to make Italy governable. But the right still has a chance.
The last polls published before a pre-election gag rule came into effect on Feb. 17 all implied a hung parliament. But under Italy's new electoral rules almost 40 percent of the seats will be decided on a first-past-the-post basis, the rest by proportional representation (PR).
Antonio Noto of Noto Sondaggi pointed out the national percentages given by the polls are only really useful for predicting the PR section of the ballot.
Analyzing the most recent polling data, Salvatore Vassallo of the University of Bologna has concluded that the right was ahead in so many winner-takes-all constituencies that it was likely to gain a slender majority in the Senate (the upper house), and was, perhaps astonishingly, a mere four seats short of doing the same in the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house).
That, however, ignores yet another variable: the 30 percent of Italian voters who remain undecided. Soundings by Noto found less than one in six of those leaned to the right.
Berlusconi's Forza Italia party enjoys support throughout the country, but the polls suggest only about 17 percent of decided voters back it.
For victory, it depends on allies with strong regional bases, who are expected to do well in first-past-the-post seats in their core areas: the Northern League with around 13 percent; the Brothers of Italy, a small party with neo-fascist roots that is strong around Rome; and, in the south where the pollsters agree this election will be decided, the NcI. An alliance of tiny groups, mostly led by former members of the once-dominant Christian Democrat party whose symbol features prominently in its logo, the NcI is the joker in the deck of this election.
For Fitto, the right's only real opponent in the south is the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S). The NcI's strong point is that, unlike the M5S, its candidates are well-known to their electorates.
They are men — mostly men — who have held office locally and can depend on goodwill built up over years, even decades, of distributing jobs and contracts to local people in the needy south.
At Corato, a town of fewer than 50,000 inhabitants where the NcI's candidate was mayor for 10 years, he and Fitto, who was governor of Puglia, drew a crowd of well more than 500 on a freezing night.
Candidate recognition is especially important in the first-past-the-post contests. The NcI is contesting 34 seats, of which Fitto reckons they can win half. In the PR section of the ballot, parties need 3 percent of the national vote to qualify for entry into parliament. But even if the NcI failed to reach the 3 percent threshold, its votes would then go to the rest of the alliance.
Fitto dismisses such talk. "The polls show we're almost at 3 percent and we've barely started campaigning," he said.
Even at just 3 percent, the NcI would gain another 18 seats, giving it 30 to 40 of the 945 in the two houses of parliament.
That may seem insignificant. But Italy's next government could well have a wafer-thin majority and ex-Christian Democrats — natural centrists and often ideologically flexible — are renowned for the ease with which they shift their allegiances and the skill with which they exploit their position, close to the fulcrum of Italian politics.
One NcI bigwig kept Romano Prodi's last fragile, center-left government on tenterhooks for months before helping to bring it down in 2008. Another one changed his affiliation no fewer than five times in the last parliament.
"We could be decisive for everything," Fitto said.