Rome: Italy's election gives voters a choice between such radically different ideas of the country and its place in Europe that it compares to Brexit, the centre-left's leader said Monday.
Democratic Party (PD) chief Enrico Letta faced Giorgia Meloni, head of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, which is leading in the polls, for the only live debate between the two leaders before the September 25 vote.
"This is a crossroads, a sort of referendum, a bit like in Great Britain when they had to choose between Brexit and staying in the EU," Letta said, calling for "more Europe, not less".
Brussels "must deal with the big issues", Meloni said in the Corriere della Sera daily streamed debate.
But her coalition - which includes Matteo Salvini's anti-immigrant League and Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party - also believes countries must be able to protect their own interests, she said.
Brothers of Italy is now polling at 24 percent despite being a political descendant of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), formed by supporters of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini after World War II.
Letta - whose party is polling just behind Brothers of Italy, but which has failed to pull together a large leftist alliance - said his rivals posed a threat to immigrants, to women's rights, and to homosexual families.
The PD, which is expected to pocket 21 percent of the vote, was the only party which could stop Italy gaining a government along the lines of that led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, he said.
Meloni accused Letta of "fake news", saying God, family and religious identity were fundamental, but she had no plans to row back rights, such as abortion.
Women who sought abortions needed to be given other options, she said.
Gay couples should not be allowed to adopt, for children "must be ensured the very best, which for me is a father, (and) a mother", she said.
Letta said what they needed was "love".
With regards to the crossings of migrants by sea to Italy, Meloni said Europe should strike a deal with North African governments to keep their citizens at home and open local centres for refugee applications.
Letta noted she was silent on Salvini's controversial tactic of blocking rescued migrants at sea in a bid to put off others, saying such methods were incompatible with "inspiring to lead a big European country".
Meloni, who has wooed Italians with her motto of "God, country and family", won the debate, according to the left-leaning Domani daily.
"Letta lost, unequivocally. He spent the whole debate, just as in the last few weeks, on fighting an imaginary Giorgia Meloni. The one of past excesses... not the institutional version of today", it said.