Campaign 2010: He said, he said, he said

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on January 28, 2010

Gilbert Teodoro (Lakas-Kampi-CMD) may be trailing his three most important rivals for the presidency in surveys, but that may not be such a bad thing for his personal brand. The “He said, he said” demonization of front runners Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III (Liberal Party) and Manny Villar (Nacionalista) is the tradeoff for high ratings, and is leaving both candidates battered.

(Former president Joseph “Erap” Estrada (Puwersa ng Masang Pilipino) does better in surveys than Mr. Teodoro, but he is expected to eventually throw his support to another candidate. His approach to campaigning appears to be based on making voters laugh hardest.)

The logic for the demolition campaigns is simplistic: If a candidate and his handlers can’t figure out how to resonate with and inspire voters, the alternative is to crucify the competition and position the brand as the lesser evil. Why can’t the candidates resonate?

Mr. Villar dominated early surveys until August 1 last year, the day former president Corazon C. Aquino passed away. His brand was positioned around the reality-based message that the candidate is a successful, self-made man who overcame poverty and other seemingly insurmountable challenges to become gloriously rich (in so many words). What he did for himself, the reasoning went, he can do for the Philippines as a whole, and Filipinos individually.

In a field that consisted otherwise of a personal brand vacuum at the time, Mr. Villar and his strategists were shocked when the black horse candidate-Mr. Aquino-rode a wave of nostalgia to dizzying leadership heights in surveys following the wake and burial of his mother. His ascension to survey heaven was also fueled by outrage that greeted news reports of profligate spending by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s entourage during a visit to Washington D.C. and New York City.

For Mr. Aquino and his handlers, the logic of his message was straightforward: It’s time for an honest president. The actual messaging was more blunt: It’s a case of good versus evil, presumably with all other candidates falling into the evil category. There are major problems with this message; however, and they came to roost on the Aquino campaign machinery as the nationwide adrenalin rush receded.

First, Mr. Aquino has not been a leading or distinguished brand in his stints as a congressman and a senator. The nation knows what it’s like to have a nice person in power who struggles mostly unsuccessfully to run the country on a day-to-day basis. And the Philippines not only needs to elect an honest individual as president, but one who can competently do the job. Second, is the matter of whether the individuals around the candidate-who presumably will be “helping” him run the country if Mr. Aquino is elected-are as unbiased, virtuous, and honest as they proclaim their candidate to be.

While voters have pondered these issues in recent weeks, Mr. Villar has continued to run what any fair observer would have to say is a slick-if somewhat over-the-top-well-funded campaign. That funding gave rise to questions about return on investment, and where it would come from if Mr. Villar is elected. To feed that speculation, one would imagine, the entrepreneur candidate’s critics and other tormentors resurrected the investigation into Mr. Villar’s involvement in the funding and planning of the C5 road extension project. A committee report was leaked alleging that Mr. Villar owes the national treasury P6.22 billion, a hefty sum even for the wealthy candidate.

This provoked one of the more disingenuous campaign moves this season in which Mr. Villar’s mouthpieces delivered the equivalent of a sucker punch to the unsuspecting Mr. Aquino, accusing him of knowing about-not committing-alleged anomalies in the construction of the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway traced to his relatives. Excuse the cliché, but the shameless and classic example of the pot calling the kettle black is underwhelming in the extreme.

Meanwhile, Mr. Teodoro-whose smiling visage is appearing on the back of more and more buses-is happily safe from the mud-slinging. Like Mr. Villar, he has solid professional credentials and accomplishments. But also like Mr. Aquino, Mr. Teodoro was notably undistinguished as a congressman and imminently forgettable as a secretary of defense. While Messrs. Villar and Aquino have been playing “He said, he said” and beating each other up, Mr. Teodoro has been talking about where he wants to take the country.

And although he doesn’t get as much attention as the front runners, Mr. Teodoro seems to be winning over women voters in droves, despite the decidedly uninspiring delivery of his message. Which begs the question, is good looks enough to win the May election?

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