ROME - Would you vote for the sleek pedigree or a cheeky mongrel? The race for the top job in Italy's February vote has taken on a new angle, with rival candidates Mario Monti and Silvio Berlusconi adopting canine friends in a bizarre election ploy.
Three-time premier Berlusconi, whose centre-right party is catching up with the left in the polls, adopted a stray from the streets of Sicily earlier this month and photographs of the pair canoodling in a garden instantly went viral on social networks.
Not to be outdone, Prime Minister Monti, a somewhat staid economist who has launched himself into the fray in a bid to prevent the return of Berlusconi, adopted a puppy on live television and named him Empatia (Empathy) -- "Empy to his friends" -- on his Twitter account @SenatoreMonti.
Two-month old Vicky, a bitch rescued from a busy road in Palermo and taken in by party-loving Berlusconi, 76, is part-wolf, part-Golden Retriever.
Her rival: 4-month old Empy, a pure-bred Maltese bought from a pet shop in Milan, Italy's economic and fashion capital, and presented to the professorial Monti by a chat-show host.
"It's dog eat dog, will Vicky or Empy triumph?" Simone Battista said on Twitter, where users started a #yeswecane ("yes we dog") feed in honor of the election's new celebrities.
Many helped Monti come up with a name for his puppy, with several suggesting "Spread" -- a reference to Italy's financial difficulties -- or "Imu", a widely-hated property tax.
Berlusconi -- renowned for his penchant for young ladies -- was instantly the butt of jokes about taking home stray females.
Some users suggested the puppy may be linked to his latest campaign promise to tackle unemployment.
"Four million new jobs for young people? Dogsitters," tweeted Manuel Massimo.
Rumors immediately spread that the current front-runner Pier Luigi Bersani was set to jump on the bandwagon and get a dog too -- though some users thought the cigar-chomping former Communist and hard rock fan was probably a cat fan.
It is still to be seen whether Vicky or Empy will influence the election result.
"Out of all these dogs, who am I supposed to vote for?" tweeted Lorenzo Pavone.