MANILA, December 22, 2003 (STAR) (AFP) - Movie icon and political novice Fernando Poe threw down the gauntlet at President Gloria Arroyo Monday, formally accepting his nomination as the Philippines' main opposition candidate for the May 2004 presidential race.

Updating an early report, the hugely popular and charismatic Poe, surrounded by fans and political backers, said he would shortly meet with party leaders to prepare a campaign plan and select his vice presidential running mate.

In the shortlist are senators Loren Legarda, Aquilino Pimentel and Gregorio Honasan and ex-senator Miriam Santiago.

All of them, except Legarda, are closely identified with deposed president Joseph Estrada, Poe's close friend and Arroyo's predecessor who is now detained and being tried for massive corruption.

Legarda is a popular former television broadcaster and Pimentel a veteran politician. Honasan is an ex-army colonel linked by state prosecutors to a failed military mutiny against Arroyo in July.

"My name is Fernando Poe Junior who is wholeheartedly recognizing and accepting my nomination as standard bearer of the Coalition of United Filipinos and the Filipino masses," Poe told a jam-packed news conference.

"Definitely I will file my candidacy" within the month, he said. "By next week, we would be announcing my running mate."

Opposition leader Edgardo Angara said that with Poe's nomination the "opposition is now united behind one single presidential candidate."

"FPJ (Poe) is now the sole and undisputed standard bearer of the united opposition in the 2004 elections," the senator said.

Poe is the self-proclaimed "King of Philippine movies", and like his friend Estrada, is seeking to parlay his celluloid success to lead this mostly impoverished country of 80 million.

A survey conducted by the respected Social Weather Stations this month showed that Arroyo would likely lose her job if elections were to be held immediately, with her approval ratings on the wane amid perceptions of corruption.

The poll showed that a majority of Filipinos would vote for either Poe or ex-broadcaster Noli de Castro, who however has not declared his intention to run.

But Poe, a high-school dropout, has never held public office and his candidacy has spooked financial markets.

He has not divulged his platform and has so far shied away from appearing in high-level forums organized by the business sector.

Asked on Monday about his platform, Poe said he was still "under consultation" with his advisers, but assured that any campaign promise he made in the future "will come true."

Arroyo's campaign strategist, Michael Defensor, said the president would file her candidacy shortly after Christmas.

"Definitely, how things are coming out and how the president is being continuously being berated and criticized, I think clearly the underdog is coming out to be the president at this point," he said.

"We would like to elevate the plane of debate and discussion to programs, policies and the quality of leadership of who will lead this country from 2004 to 2010," Defensor said.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved