By Crispian Balmer
HERCULANEUM, Italy (Reuters) - The rightist Northern League once derided southern Italy as a crime-riddled, parasitic wasteland. It now sees it as a vote-rich territory that could help lead it to victory in next month's national election.
In a radical makeover, the League has dropped the word "Northern" from its name and is presenting itself as a national force, aggressively surfing a tide of anti-immigrant sentiment to vie for supremacy within its own center-right bloc.
Opinion polls say the bloc, which includes former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, will win the March 4 ballot, but fall just short of an absolute majority.
Whereas in the last parliamentary election in 2013, the League took four percent of the vote, polls predict it could grab 14 percent next month, leaving it nipping at the heels of the once predominant partner Forza Italia, seen on 16 percent.
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The League's push beyond its northern strongholds, led by its gruff leader Matteo Salvini, has helped lift its popularity, which has come against a backdrop of surging immigration, rising resentment against Europe, and persistent economic woes.
"The problems in the north are the same as in the south. There are too few jobs and too many migrants," said Gianluca Cantalamessa, a League candidate in Herculaneum, which sits under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, down the coast from Naples.
Cantalamessa, 50, is the sole center-right candidate in the Torre del Greco constituency, which includes both Herculaneum and Pompeii -- towns obliterated in 79 AD when Vesuvius erupted, spewing lava and ash across the region.
Polls suggest that he will be amongst a crop of candidates elected for the first time in the south on a League ticket, with Salvini's uncompromising "Italy First" message making headway in areas long hostile to his party.
"We need to look to the future, because if you share a common love for your land and your children then you have to find what unites you, not what divides you," said Cantalamessa, a stormy Mediterranean sea kicking and spitting in the distance.
Founded in 1991 by Umberto Bossi, the League once campaigned vociferously for northern secession and used to denounce Italy's capital as "thieving Rome". Maps on its website jokingly referred to everything south of Rome as Africa.
The party forged various coalitions with Berlusconi, always as a junior partner, with its ambitions firmly tied to its wealthy strongholds in the Lombardy and Veneto regions.
But after Bossi was charged with graft in 2012, sneering at southern corruption sounded hollow and when Salvini took charge in 2013, the strategy evolved.
He made friends with Marine Le Pen's National Front in France and the anti-Islam Freedom Party in the Netherlands, promising to take Italy out of the euro if he took power and denouncing the European Union as a bureaucratic dictatorship.
He has since rowed back on the euro pledge and has turned his focus onto immigration, tapping public angst over the arrival of more than 600,000 mainly African migrants in four years, mostly by boat from Libya.
"We are under attack. Our culture, society, traditions and way of life are at risk," he said last month, defending a League candidate who had suggested Italy's "white race" was endangered.
The race issue leapt to the fore of the campaign at the weekend when a neo-Nazi, who had stood for the League in a local ballot in 2017, shot and wounded six Africans in central Italy.
Police said they believe the man was seeking revenge after a Nigerian drug dealer was arrested following the discovery of the dismembered body of a teenage Italian girl.
Leftist politicians accused Salvini of generating an atmosphere of hate that had allowed such a shooting to happen. "Salvini has created fear and chaos and should apologize before the Italian people," said Laura Boldrini, speaker of the lower house of parliament and a member of the Free and Equal Party.
Salvini, who once compared Boldrini to an inflatable sex doll, denied the accusation, and he and his supporters have since doubled down on their drive against illegal immigration.
"I am not a racist, but people here have had enough of all these migrants," said Cantalamessa. "I am against the creation of a mixed-race nation," he added.
While some passers-by came up to Cantalamessa to shake his hand and promise their support, other locals are less friendly.
"We people from the south in no way should be voting for the League, absolutely not. It is completely against our ideals, our spirit," a shopper called Antonella told Reuters TV.
A 2009 video of Salvini helps explain such entrenched animosity. "Smell that stench. Even the dogs are fleeing. Here come the Neapolitans," Salvini sings with other League members, jovially waving a glass of beer.
He has since apologized and is due to hold rallies in the south at the end of the month. But just as some southerners view his repositioning of the League with great suspicion, so some party veterans bitterly regret the new strategy.
"A large part of the old guard which always supported the ideals of the north are now struggling to see themselves reflected in this new party," said Giovanni Fava, who was beaten by Salvini in the party's 2013 leadership battle.
One League parliamentarian predicted that the party would lose thousands of votes in the north because of the new focus on the south, without gaining much in return.
"It is a flawed strategy. There is no way we can put down roots in the south. That is not who we are," he said, declining to be named for fear of angering Salvini.
Berlusconi and Salvini have agreed that in case of outright victory in March, whichever party wins most votes will choose who should be prime minister.
The 81-year-old Berlusconi is convinced he will win that particular duel, but Salvini, 44, inspired by the success of Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, is confident that he will triumph.
"It'll be enough for me if we get 0.1 percent more than Forza Italia. It would mean that our concrete approach and our coherence have been rewarded," he said on Thursday, putting himself forward as his party's prime ministerial nominee.
If he is to take the lead, he will need his southern gamble to pay off. Herculaneum fishmonger Liberato Maione, for one, is ready to do his bit. "I will vote for the League ... We need to turn to something else, something new," he said.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; editing by Giles Elgood)