CONCEPCION, TARLAC, September 15, 2003 (STAR) By Benjie Villa  - Embarking on a "litmus test" to feel out the response for his presidential bid in the coming 2004 elections, businessman Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco Jr. took many by surprise when he showed up with administration stalwart Sen. Loren Legarda here yesterday.

Adding to the surprise was the appearance of Ilocos Norte Rep. Imee Marcos of the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL), fueling speculations that Legarda will eventually be the running mate of Cojuangco with the Ilocos Norte lawmaker included in his senatorial slate.

Cojuangco told a crowd of about 3,000 people gathered at the Aquino National High School (ANHS) here that he remains "undecided" on calls to run for president in next year’s elections.

Cojuangco cited his defeat to former President Fidel Ramos in the 1992 presidential elections as one factor why he could not yet announce whether he would run.

Nonetheless, he told the crowd that he already prepared a platform of government on how to salvage the country from the current political and economic crisis.

Legarda and Marcos, for their part, skirted issues on endorsing Cojuangco’s presidential plans. Marcos earlier said she will just wait for the invitation of the NPC to join its senatorial ticket and give her inputs on selecting the common standard-bearer.

But many among the crowd, and even local politicians here, suspected a plan is being cooked up for a "Danding-Loren" tandem in the coming polls.

Cojuangco founded the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), under which party he ran and lost to former general Ramos in 1992.

His supporters from the NPC, which is part of the administration People Power Coalition (PPC) and the Sunshine Coalition at the House of Representatives which included Marcos’ KBL, claimed the former ambassador and chairman of the food and beverage giant San Miguel Corp. (SMC) is sure of running again in next year’s presidential elections.

A big bloc of congressmen from the ruling party Lakas-CMD also wants Cojuangco to run under the banner of the administration party, while Sen. Edgardo Angara, president of the mainstream opposition party Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP), prefers him as the common candidate.

Cojuangco earlier expressed his preference to be adopted as the "common candidate" by the administration and the opposition.

Some political leaders here expressed their belief that a Danding-Loren team-up could galvanize a coalition with Lakas-CMD and from the opposition parties, including the LDP.

Although some of the province’s top politicians were not present during the rally, Tarlac Rep. Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III and former Tarlac vice governor Herminio Aquino crossed party lines in meeting Cojuangco.

Also on hand to welcome Cojuangco were support groups like Danding for President Movement (DPM) led by Blesilo Buan who owns the Tarlac First Provincial Bank, and the United Movement for Danding Cojuangco (UMDC) of former Gerona municipal councilor Ronjie Daquigan.

Cojuangco’s delegation was led by Tarlac Gov. Jose Yap, Vice Gov. Marcelino Aganon Jr., Tarlac Rep. Jesli Lapus, and Cojuangco’s nephew, Tarlac first district Rep. Gilbert Teodoro Jr.

Representatives from Lakas included Capas Mayor Rey Catacutan, who chairs the administration party in the province’s third congressional district, Camiling Mayor Johnny delos Reyes and Moncada Mayor Estelita Aquino, who heads the Tarlac Mayors’ League and is affiliated with the Kabalikat ng Malayang Pilipino (Kampi).

Teodoro earlier said his uncle is closely looking into three critical factors before deciding to give it a shot in next year’s presidential race.

Aside from embarking on a countrywide tour to "test the political waters," Teodoro said the presence or lack of "suitable candidates with good programs of government," the chances of winning and finding a worthy successor to his uncle’s position as SMC chairman would be key to the decision.

The Tarlac legislator has said it would be a great loss if the coalition would break up on issues of choosing their common candidate

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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