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Associated Press
In this photo from files taken on Feb. 16, 2013 and released by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Benedict XVI meets with Italian Premier Mario Monti during a private audience at the Vatican.

ROME — How much weight does an endorsement from a lame-duck pope carry in the upcoming election?

No, not that election — the one to pick the next leader of the Catholic church. Another key ballot is looming even closer, when Italians go to the polls this Sunday to choose a new premier. And with Italy in a solemn mood over the historic resignation of Benedict XVI, the "moral vision" of incumbent Mario Monti may get a boost to the detriment of the flamboyant, scandal-plagued Silvio Berlusconi.

Even though a large majority of Italian Catholics don't regularly attend Sunday Mass, the Vatican traditionally wields influence on politics in Italy, a country where Christian Democrats held sway for decades. Just about anything the pope does or says is big news. And Pope Benedict XVI has made no secret of his preference for Monti, a practicing Catholic, whom he greeted warmly on Saturday in one of his last private audiences with an Italian political leader.

On the other hand, the Vatican has expressed its horror over the string of sex and corruption scandals swirling around the billionaire media mogul Berlusconi. And with the dignity of the papal transition very much on Italian minds, Benedict's clear preference for Monti could be a factor in making voters think twice about backing a figure who has become synonymous with an amoral, me-first way of life.

Experts do warn: Don't expect the papal factor to sway the election. But it's clear that the candidates may be adjusting their rhetoric to the spirit of the times.

Frontrunner Pier Luigi Bersani, who as a veteran of Italy's left espouses a more secular kind of ethical vision, hammered away at the issue of "morality" at a campaign rally Sunday. While he comes from a different political tradition from the center-right Monti, the two share an emphasis on economic reform that could very well make them a good match in a future coalition government.