As the acknowledged presidential front-runner, the spotlight during last Sunday’s final presidential debate aired on national television was focused on Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and how he was going to behave at that crucial juncture. He had been receiving flak for his most recent crass remarks about an Australian gang rape victim. He had opened himself to criticisms with nebulous remarks on complex issues such as the West Philippine Sea dispute and relations with China.
While most pundits were predicting that the other presidential bets will gang up on Duterte, it didn’t happen on that stage. Grace Poe was tentative and roundabout in attempting to paint Duterte as anti-woman; she even gave him a chance to promote his supposed accomplishments on women concerns in his home turf of Davao City.
Mar Roxas had another plan in mind coming to the debate, taking the high ground a la statesman and avoiding a head-on clash with Duterte to wangle valuable points. To his credit, Roxas was focused and intense and delivered the most substantial arguments among the candidates. His opening and closing statements were well crafted and masterfully delivered.
If Duterte’s handlers had advised their candidate to refrain from using harsh language this time, they had succeeded. The goal for the night was to preempt any further damage to his campaign and coast along to victory riding on the crest of a phenomenal protest vote unseen in any presidential elections since EDSA. Survey figures have him consistently on the lead, threatening to break away for a plausible landslide.
Uncharacteristic of his persona in the campaign trail, Duterte was coy rather than rabid, playful without being disgusting. He opted to flatter Miriam Santiago in a no-contest face-off and avoided the cuss words. Never mind his Mickey Mouse policy on the West Philippine Sea dispute and his plan to ride a jet ski to Scarborough Shoal and face the Chinese. While it was apparent that he has no clear foreign policy agenda, given his predilection to reduce the issue to sheer bravado, no one called him out on that.
Duterte chose not to pick a fight with either of his three closest pursuers – Roxas, Poe and Binay. If it were a game of chess, he played for a draw.
As things stand, it’s easy now to predict a victory for Duterte. The survey numbers speak for themselves and they seem to indicate that without any dramatic and game changing scenario emerging in the next two weeks, the maverick candidate from Davao will be it.
This scenario is sure to be the starting point for the LP machinery of Roxas and Grace Poe’s advisers in revisiting their strategy. They both need a critical boost to try and overtake Duterte on D-Day. The big challenge to them is to find that trigger to create that momentum. It could be a bid to bank on LP’s dominant political machinery in the case of Roxas. Grace Poe is within close striking distance and an effective messaging could still give her a critical advantage.
Methinks it’s too close to call, yet.