By Gavin Jones and Angelo Amante
ROME (Reuters) - Silvio Berlusconi's campaign to become Italian president is making little progress and he would be wise to withdraw his candidacy, the right-hand man of the former prime minister said on Tuesday.
Vittorio Sgarbi, a lower house deputy who has been trying to persuade undecided lawmakers to back the 85-year-old Berlusconi, said he had suspended his efforts because it was proving "a desperate task".
Berlusconi has led four governments as prime minister, but his bid to become president has always looked unlikely due to a record that includes a conviction for tax fraud and the scandal over his notorious "bunga bunga" sex parties while he was last in office.
He is currently on trial on charges of bribing witnesses in a previous case involving alleged underage prostitution, of which he was acquitted. He denies all wrongdoing.
Sgarbi said in an interview with RAI state radio that believed Berlusconi is looking for "an honourable way out" by proposing an alternative candidate.
He said this could be to ask the outgoing President Sergio Mattarella to serve another term, while Berlusconi was less inclined to back current Prime Minister Mario Draghi for the job.
Draghi is considered by many commentators to be in pole position when more than 1,000 parliamentarians and regional delegates gather on Jan. 24 to begin voting for a new head of state.
Berlusconi is the formal candidate of the centre-right bloc in parliament, made up of two right-wing parties, the League and Brothers of Italy, his own more moderate Forza Italia group.
On paper, these parties lack sufficient votes to elect the billionaire media tycoon, which is why Sgarbi was given the mission of trying to win over scores of unaffiliated lawmakers.
Sgarbi later told Reuters that while there was no way that he could find enough votes to get his man elected, it may still be possible through other political channels.
The first was that former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi might offer Berlusconi the votes of his centrist Italia Viva party - something Renzi has so far ruled out.
The second was that a large group of right-leaning parliamentarians from the 5-Star Movement could throw their weight behind Berlusconi. This also seems unlikely, as 5-Star has traditionally been a sworn enemy of Berlusconi.
(Editing by Angus MacSwan)