Poe campaign: Royal passage stuck in real world

This 3,000-word feature, part of the Inquirer’s Charm Offensive Revisited series, ran on the front page of the May 5, 2004 issue—a week before the presidential elections. (This version differs slightly from the piece as published; I edited three or four infelicitous passages, made a couple of corrections, changed one translation.) 

Air of unreality

Fernando Poe Jr. is a king running for president. This explains his candidacy’s mass appeal; it also explains his campaign’s increasingly unappealing prospects of victory. An air of unreality marks his bid for the presidency.

Flashback to two Tuesdays ago. At the back of the makeshift stage constructed in the middle of Librada Avelino Street in Pandacan, Manila, campaign organizers call for more security about 10 minutes before Poe arrives. Local campaign supporters wearing blue vests are marshaled into the area, and they join the others already linking arms. With their bodies, they mark off a path for Poe. But the moment Poe exits his vehicle (a new Toyota Land Cruiser without license plates; he is, as is his wont, riding in the front seat), a frenzy difficult to capture on television spreads through the crowd. The pushing and shoving is claustrophobic. Even the supporters doubling as security shout and scream his name. “FPJ! FPJ! FPJ!” In their fervor, some forget to link arms.

Is this a political campaign? More like fans’ day for the popular movie actor known as “Da King.”

But the same unreality marks the rest of his campaign. His leaders belittle the surveys which Poe once ruled. These are being manipulated, says Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, Poe’s personal campaign manager. They are the work of “analysts in air-conditioned offices,” Poe’s running mate Senator Loren Legarda says over a midnight meal. How do you measure your progress in the campaign, if you don’t believe in the integrity of these surveys? “We conduct our own,” says ex-Senator Ernesto Herrera, one of Poe’s candidates for the Senate. 

This kind of talk, and the behavior that flows from it, leaves a distinct impression: the Poe campaign operates in a world different from the one the elections will be conducted in. Other critical issues are dealt with in the same unreal way: opposition unity, the crowds as a projection of the vote, the unexpected lack of funds, crossed signals and multiple factions, organizational shortcomings. They are all dismissed, or blithely answered.

Makati Mayor Jejomar “Jojo” Binay, for instance, coyly refuses to make a distinction between Poe as candidate and Poe as celebrity. “Yung lahat ng pumupunta sa rally, yung lahat ng (bumabati) sa motorcade … boto lahat ni FPJ ‘yan, at ni Loren (Everyone who goes to the rallies, everyone who greets the motorcades … those are all votes for FPJ and Loren),” he says in a press briefing in Makati City.

Accessible in Nasugbu

On April 22, the day before the results of the latest Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey came out, Poe and his Senate slate barnstorm through Batangas province. He had absented himself from the previous day’s sortie in Mindoro province; in Nasugbu town, he tells reporters what he had suffered from. “Parang (something like) chest cold,” he says.

Lunch is served at the White Cove resort, a few minutes’ drive from the town plaza. The resort is an enormous development. The main building is imposing, the villas nearest the beach impressive, but other facilities remain unfinished. The general impression is that the place has, perhaps temporarily, run short of funds.

About an hour before Poe arrives, the lobby begins to fill with campaign staff, first from local candidates and then from the Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP/Coalition of United Filipinos) Senate slate. The senatorial candidates or their proxies reach the resort by helicopter; Alfredo “Fred” Lim, Juan Ponce “Johnny” Enrile, Maria Elisa “Boots” Anson-Roa, Francisco “Kit” Tatad, Salvador “Sonny” Escudero, Amina Rasul-Bernardo loiter in the patio, posing for pictures with members of the local campaign staff.

Lim and a surprisingly sprightly Enrile are the favorites of the cellphone-and-camera crowd. (Belying his 80 years, Enrile joins a table peopled by reporters and a few fellow candidates by deftly lifting a chair from the next table, whipping it around, and then, like a schoolboy, sitting on it with the backrest in front.)

Poe’s chopper is the last to land. He is accompanied, among many others, by fellow movie star Philip Salvador, an occasional guest of his on the campaign trail. (The redoubtable Eddie Garcia, who unlike Poe has in fact played the role of a president, albeit only on TV, appears in all the rallies. He comes on stage after FPJ.)

The cellphone-and-camera crowd follows the presidential candidate as he makes his way to a private area for lunch. But Sotto and the media coordinators — “shepherds” in the reporters’ shorthand — pass the word: Poe will meet the media after lunch.

At about 2 p.m., Poe makes good on his word, descending to the part of the patio where the reporters had taken their lunch. Many people accompany him, including Legarda, Sotto and some of the “hawi” (crowd-parting) boys. A little later, making his first appearance on the campaign trail as overall campaign manager, Binay shows up behind FPJ.

All told, the give and take lasts about 20 minutes; in that time, Legarda, who sits at Poe’s left, is asked only one question. The rest of the questions, about a dozen in all, are directed at Poe. Later, in the new library of the Leviste compound in Lipa City, Legarda teases the reporters sharing her table about not asking her more questions in the Nasugbu press conference. The trouble, she says, laughing, is that “I’m always accessible.”

Access to Poe, on the other hand, is a commodity worth its weight in journalistic gold. According to the reporters who cover Poe regularly, his Nasugbu briefing was only the third sit-down, and only the second formal, news conference since the three-month campaign period started on Feb. 10. It happened 72 days into the campaign.

In the press conference, Poe is in good form. He cracks jokes about failing to communicate, via cellphone, with opposition rival presidential candidate Senator Panfilo Lacson: “Pareho na kaming low-batt! (We are both running low on battery power).” He comments on the campaign money reportedly flowing into Lacson’s camp: “Baka gusto niya akong bigyan ng pangarera (Maybe he’d like to give me some to bet on the horses).” He slaps down ex-President Fidel Ramos’ suggestion, aired the day before, that he give way to Lacson to promote opposition unity. It is the opposite of deposed President Joseph Estrada’s advice, that Lacson give way instead. “I’d rather take the suggestion of President Erap (Estrada’s nickname),” Poe says, flashing a winning smile. Amidst general laughter, Sotto remarks: “Okay ‘yan, a.”

Uncoordinated on Lipa 

In the same press conference, he is asked about reports that Lipa Mayor Vilma Santos, an old friend of his from the movies, had denied his campaign permission to hold a grand rally in the city plaza.

“A, hindi ba sa plaza (You mean it’s not at the plaza)?” is his first reply.

This is unfortunate, because right before his press conference, Charito Apacible, his candidate for Batangas governor and the KNP’s provincial chair, had given one herself, to the same reporters, in the same place. In her briefing, which started at about 1:40 p.m., Apacible accused administration Senator Ralph Recto, Santos’ husband, of scuttling their rally at the plaza. She even quoted what she said were Recto’s threats.

In his press conference, all Poe could say to the inevitable follow-up question was that he believed the pressure of politics must have forced Mayor Vi’s hand.

It would have been a simple matter to give Poe a head’s up on Apacible’s claim. Because (apparently) no one did, Poe found himself in an awkward situation: asking the media where the Lipa rally would be, and the media relaying to him the same information his own candidate for governor had broadcast less than half an hour ago.

But campaign insiders say everyone is deferential to Da King; the failure to tell him could have been an unintended consequence of the way his world is ordered.

As it turns out, Apacible got it all wrong (or as Recto told reporters later in the evening, she made it all up).

At about 11 p.m. a van of reporters, uninvited and unannounced, enters the Recto residence in Lipa. An ABS-CBN OB van is already inside. The mayor and the senator are on the verandah, wearing house clothes, with a stack of photocopied documents and a tray of biscuits on the table. They say they are monitoring the rally in Lipa (where, it was reported to the dismay of the diminutive Mayor Vi, Poe senatorial candidate Ernesto “Ernie” Maceda had called on the people in her own city to drive out of office both the “pandak” [midget] of Malacañang and the “pandak” of Lipa).

Santos says the KNP campaign’s first verbal request to use the plaza was immediately approved, but it was for a day earlier, April 21. When the local organizers realized their mistake and filed a new request received on April 19, it was too late, because the plaza had been booked for April 22 many weeks before. (Hence the documents beside the biscuits.)

“Ganito lang ito (That’s all there is to it), magnified, exaggerated, because of the elections,” Santos says. She thinks the world of “Ronnie” (Poe’s nickname, which she pronounces “Rannie”), she says, and she always will. “I can attest” to his integrity and capacity, she adds. “Ronnie Poe is one person I truly respect.”

But asked whether she thinks her good friend would make a good president, she says: “Being a public official is no joke … it won’t be very easy for him. He will have a hard time.”

The reporters leave the house with a cellphone-based tip from Recto: the SWS survey which will be released tomorrow shows President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo widening her lead over Poe, 35.3 to 30.8.

Triumphant in Batangas

After an exhausting town-by-town motorcade through Batangas (by Legarda’s account nothing less than triumphant, by other accounts fit for a king), the campaign caps off the day with simultaneous rallies.

The rally in Lipa is held on an open field owned by the Leviste family. From the campaign stage, it looks as if the rally had attracted several thousand people — more than the plaza could have comfortably accommodated. Because the field is at the corner of the highway and a major road, and dozens of campaign vehicles had parked on the streets, a huge traffic jam all but blocks passage for a couple of hours. Hundreds of vehicles — cars, buses, and many, many trucks — are stuck; drivers and passengers pass the time stretching their legs or smoking cigarettes or pacing up and down the highway.

Because of a parallel rally in Batangas City, the KNP ticket had split itself into two, with one group campaigning in one city earlier in the evening and then traveling to the other later at night. It is literally midnight when Poe makes his appearance on the Lipa stage.

The presence of many show business personalities — Niño Muhlach and Rez Cortez among them — allows Apacible to wax expansive. At one point, she playfully gives thanks to everyone on stage: “Sa lahat ng narito, ang aking mga kapwa-artista (to everyone here on stage, my fellow actors).”

And then it’s time. Winding up a short intro, she calls on “the next president of the Philippines,” and Poe bounces on stage (the hawi boys do their job well). It is four minutes past midnight.

Poe launches into his stump speech, a concatenation of titles and famous lines from his movies. By design, the speech does not dwell on specifics. Hours before the rally started, for instance, the influential Archbishop Oscar Cruz accused the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. of illegally using some 68 million pesos to support Ms Macapagal’s campaign. It is a damaging charge, a potential liability for the President herself, but there is no mention of it in Poe’s speech.

The crowd applauds at each of the familiar lines.

At 12:10, Poe wraps up his speech, and then—the clincher in every Poe rally—calls on his “surprise” guest, Eddie Garcia, popularly known as Manoy. Garcia, like Enrile a member of the fit-as-a-fiddle octogenarian club, delivers an impassioned speech attacking the Macapagal administration. (Usually, he talks about the country’s growing debt; this time is no exception.)

Poe then picks up the microphone again, discharging yet another movie-inspired broadside at Garcia.

“Inagawan na naman ako ng eksena ni Manoy,” he says. “Dapat hindi ko na pinasikatan ng araw ‘yan (I shouldn’t have allowed this scene stealer to live another day).”

Another roar from the crowd.

Then it’s hand-raising time, and Poe and Loren pose for pictures with their local candidates. But from the stage, it is easy to see that the crowd has thinned at the edges. People have started going home. The rally finally ends at around 20 past 12.

Respectful in Naga

On April 23, the KNP campaign hits Bicolandia. It has been 10 days since Bicol’s favorite son, ex-Senator Raul Roco, left unexpectedly for the United States for medical reasons. But one wouldn’t know it from the campaign signs.

From the airport in Pili town on to Naga City, streamers in strategic places declare: “An lugar na ini 100% Roco (this place is 100-percent Roco).”

Poe continues his version of a whistle-stop campaign, using the motorcade to great effect. But the question of conversion—how many of those who come out to see Poe will actually vote for him—still hangs in the air. In the Camarines provinces, Poe is the same reclusive action star who has come a-visiting; people come out to see him.

But Roco’s looming presence (something like four-fifths of Bicolano voters supported Roco in 1998) leads to one of the few grace notes in this campaign.

At the evening rally held on a closed-off portion of Peñafrancia Avenue, Poe makes sure to wish Roco well.

Without mentioning his rival’s name, Poe says he hopes the ex-senator (“ang ating kaibigan,” or our friend) gets well soon. An appreciative murmur ripples through the crowd.

The view is radically different from the middle of the audience (estimated size: several hundreds).

Those who are 25 feet away or farther from the stage have an impeded view: buntings of the well-heeled candidates (Legarda, Jinggoy Estrada and Jamby Madrigal) and another favorite son (Tatad, who also hails from Bicol) hang low over the crowd, resulting in an effect well-known to photographers.

From a distance, the stage looks curiously cropped.

Tatad holds forth; he is followed by Rasul, who says she is a close friend of the city’s popular reelectionist mayor, Ramon Magsaysay awardee Jesse Robredo.

In turn, she is followed by Anson-Roa, Jinggoy Estrada, Escudero and then Legarda. But it is Estrada who captures the fancy of the crowd. (Just arriving on stage and looking for his seat, he manages to create a stir.)

His stump speech, drawing parallels between himself and his detained father, is easily the best of the candidates’. It is easy to follow, it is self-deprecatory, and it contains just enough of the truth to come across as believable. From the middle of the crowd, the reaction is at first amused, and then gleeful. When Estrada reaches his second-to-the-last comparison, about his father supposedly saying to him, “Noong nagpakulong ako, nagpakulong ka rin (When I allowed myself to be jailed, you did too),” the crowd erupts in a collective laugh. The reaction is almost giddy.

In truth, this joke is the highlight of the evening rally. Poe’s reception about half an hour after Estrada’s star turn is enthusiastic, but it doesn’t scale the heights of that jailhouse crack.

It is only around half past 10 when Poe is introduced, by Sotto, and from the middle of the crowd he is visibly still full of energy (unlike the tired candidate who spoke at the Lipa rally the night before). His delivery is stronger, and he even deigns to accept Legarda’s “challenge,” to sing a duet with her. It is, of course, “Kahit Konting Pagtingin,” the theme from one of his hit movies.

Pumped-up in Pandacan

Poe is even more pumped-up in his April 26 sortie in Pandacan (in the sixth district of Manila, where Malacañang is). He had just met with Lacson, his main rival for the opposition vote, and he looks relaxed but alert.

The closed-off part of Avelino Street is packed; the crowd overruns the one-lane road, filling a portion that stretches about a kilometer. Aside from Garcia, show biz stars Richard Gomez and Annabelle Rama show up on stage.

Legarda, when she gets off her van, is also treated like show business royalty. But tonight the focus is indisputably on Poe.

At about 10:30 p.m., he alights from the Land Cruiser, without his glasses on. In the middle of a crowd that screams his name and looks set to collapse on him, he calmly takes out his eyeglasses as he walks and puts them on. Unlike in Lipa, he is not hustled on to the stage.

His stump speech lasts longer than usual. Eddie Garcia adds to his own too, listing Ms Macapagal’s three titles (“tatlong titulo”) as “artista, economista at utangista (pretender, economist, and debtor extraordinaire).”

Interviewed on stage, in full view of the crowd, Poe is at ease fielding several questions. He confirms meeting with Lacson “somewhere in Quezon City,” and then blithely answers the perennial unity question: “Right now we are one … in protecting the ballot.”

Lost in survey world

Earlier backstage, Sotto tries to pass on what he calls a “tip” from his “intel” or intelligence sources. “Lulutuin nila ang exit poll (they will cook the exit poll results),” he tells the three reporters who made it to the Pandacan rally. He is referring, apparently, to a conspiracy involving SWS, the ABS-CBN network, and Malacañang. “Mabigat ‘yan. Pinag-aaralan pa namin kung anong counter-measures (this is serious, and we are studying which counter-measures to use).”

And then the clincher: “Itong mga survey, walang-hiyaan na (these surveys are shamelessly being manipulated).”

He declines to make the formal announcement, however, and suggests that Legarda will do it. But the running mate also declines to turn the tip into news.

In a more measured manner, Herrera says much the same thing over lunch after Binay’s press conference in Makati. “There is that perception that the surveys are not accurate. Whether they are manipulated or not” is another matter.

He points to three “factors” why surveys are inaccurate: the selection of respondents, respondents saying things “just to please you,” and the surveys’ own margin of error.

Disclosing that he has spoken with a Poe campaign strategist in Cabanatuan City, Herrera says he shared the strategist’s conclusion that “the most Gloria can get is 32, while for FPJ it’s 45. Those are the numbers.”

He then adds: “The biggest factor that influences is what happens in the field.”

The Pandacan rally is proof of Poe’s drawing power. But is it necessarily proof of his vote-getting pull?

After Poe has left the place and the stage is clear, a fan of his approaches the reporters, who are beside a van calling in their stories. She asks: “Wala na ba kayong souvenir (don’t you have any more souvenirs)?”

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