By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) - Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy's far-right League, seems to have lost his magic touch at the worst possible time - just ahead of Sunday's European Parliament election.
Until a few weeks ago Salvini seemed unstoppable, greeted by ecstatic crowds wherever he went, winning a string of local ballots and building a huge lead in opinion polls between the League and its coalition partner, the 5-Star Movement.
Then something went wrong. In mid-April a League junior minister, Armando Siri, was put under investigation for allegedly accepting a bribe from a wind-farm entrepreneur. Siri has denied any wrongdoing.
The case did not initially look particularly ominous for Salvini but it led to his first major political defeat, pricking his aura of invincibility and the perception that he called all the shots in the government.
5-Star, which makes fighting corruption its trademark, insisted Siri should resign, but Salvini flatly rebuffed them, only to eventually back down when Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte sacked the minister a few weeks later.
"Several recent events have hurt Salvini but the Siri episode was the most significant," said Lorenzo Pregliasco, head of political analysis and polling firm YouTrend.
"The stand-off blocked government activity for weeks and then he was the loser, so the combined effect was quite damaging for him."
Since then Salvini, who is deputy prime minister and interior minister, has struggled to regain his mojo, while the case galvanised 5-Star which has doubled down on an aggressive campaign against its government ally.
This month Salvini has seen the League's mayor in the northern town of Legnano arrested for corruption and he was put under investigation himself for possible misuse of state flights while campaigning for the elections.
His rallies are increasingly interrupted by protesters and hecklers, and a so-called "sheet revolt" has gathered steam around Italy, in which opponents hang sheets carrying aggressive or witty slogans against him from their balconies.
Even the weather seems to have turned against him, with steady rain depressing turnout and morale at his set-piece gathering of European far-right leaders in Milan on Saturday.
The next day he was ramming home his familiar message on television that a charity ship off Sicily would not be allowed to dock, when the interviewer told him the 47 migrants on board were already being taken ashore on the orders of a magistrate.
However, the shift in the public mood should not be overplayed. Salvini retains the enthusiastic support of millions of Italians and the League is expected to be comfortably the largest party in Sunday's vote.
"He is carrying forward our ideals and our battles and we are proud of him. We believe in him," said Rita Pelizzoli, one of the thousands of supporters at the rally in Milan.
What has changed is the assumption that he had no possible rivals and could only go from strength to strength.
A raft of opinion polls published ahead of a cut-off 10 days ago showed the League had already lost momentum in the previous few weeks, but it retained at least 30% of voting support in most polls, and a lead of 6-11 points over 5-Star.
One poll, by the Ipsos agency, showed the League losing 6 points in three weeks and its lead over 5-Star falling from 14 points to six. Polls can no longer be published but they continue to be conducted, and Italian media say the latest ones show the gap between the two parties narrowing further.
Salvini seems intent on playing down expectations, saying on Tuesday that anything above 20% would mean progress compared with the 17% the League got at last year's general election.
YouTrend's Pregliasco said the League would actually be disappointed with anything under 30%.
"That is an important psychological threshold because it means you are inevitably the leading party and it hasn't been reached by many parties in Italy," he said.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)