by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, Jan. 3 (Xinhua) -- Matteo Renzi's play for increased political power may be underway, analysts say, as the mayor of Florence and the newly-elected head of the country's biggest political party is taking steps to raise his profile.
A national poll from the final days of December showed that Renzi, who will turn 39 next week, has the lowest negative ratings of any of the dozen national political figures pollsters asked about.
But while that's a positive sign, it is another number in the same poll, nearly one in four Italians who say they know too little about him to make an informed decision, that Renzi is seeking to change.
"Those who know Renzi have a positive opinion of him, at least in relative terms," said Maria Rossi, co-director of the polling firm Opinioni.
"But aside from knowing his name, too few people know what he stands for or what he would like to do if he was elected to a higher political office," said the analyst.
Normally, the mayor of a mid-sized city and the inexperienced head of a political party would not garner so much attention. But the steps Renzi takes are important since he is from the same political party as Prime Minister Enrico Letta.
The conventional wisdom is that Renzi could eventually challenge Letta, a move that could risk forcing early elections and perhaps split the party.
That risk seems limited at the moment. Letta is focused on improving the country's moribund economy, and signals from the last three months are that a slow but measurable turn around may be underway. But the economic recovery faces many obstacles, and if it falters Renzi may be ready to step into the spotlight.
But before that can happen, Renzi must prove he is ready for the national stage, expert observers say.
"He is a good speaker and he is young and energetic but he isn't considered a heavyweight in terms of policy issues," said Hildebrandt and Ferrar political affairs analyst Gian Franco Gallo. "It's clear it will be a priority for that to change over time."
Already, Renzi has called for political reform aimed at assuring that the kind of political stalemate that emerged after last year's elections does not repeat itself. With no clear winner, the country was led by a technocrat government for two months until Letta was installed as part of a compromise.
Additionally, Renzi this week weighed in on European issues, calling for EU deficit limits to be relaxed. Those limits have forced debt-ridden countries, including Italy, to take on painful austerity measures such as raising taxes and reducing government services that have used valuable political capital.
Mario Monti, a former European commissioner who preceded Letta as prime minister, saw his approval levels plummet after his austerity plan was rolled out in 2012.
"The stances (Renzi has taken so far) are not controversial ones, but that is wise," Gallo said. "As prime minister, Letta must make all the difficult decisions that come across his desk. For the moment, Renzi can choose to take a stand on popular issues that raise his profile."