MANILA, December 24, 2003  (STAR) SKETCHES By Ana Marie Pamintuan - No matter how you look at it, action king Fernando Poe Jr. has emerged as the opposition candidate. Butz Aquino and the camp of Sen. Panfilo Lacson can perorate all they want against Sen. Edgardo Angara and his faction in the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino, but FPJ has become the opposition’s standard-bearer.

With a senatorial slate firming up, I don’t think there’s any chance of FPJ withdrawing from this race. And with so much bad blood between Angara and Butz Aquino’s camp, I don’t think there’s any chance of Lacson becoming FPJ’s running mate.

Who’s more winnable? You can guess what the opposition thinks by the number of politicians that have joined FPJ. This Christmas break, Lacson has some serious rethinking to do about his political plans.

The presence of the barnacled, the discredited, the incompetent and the unhinged in the FPJ camp is the stuff of nightmares for some Filipinos. FPJ may be Mr. Clean and his wife Susan Roces may be Mrs. Clean. And so far Malacańang’s dirty tricks department has not yet gone to work on Da King and his Queen.

The FPJ camp can argue that there are barnacled, discredited, incompetent and unhinged characters in every political stable in this country. But FPJ the neophyte politician is supposed to offer a fresh alternative to the electorate.

People who were willing to support FPJ in their desperation over their prospects under the Arroyo administration are now rethinking their options after seeing some of the politicians surrounding FPJ.

As these jittery people sit down to the traditional noche buena tonight, their talk is bound to touch on their prospects for resettling in a saner country.

* * *

Those who feel such desperation obviously believe that a Poe victory is certain in May 2004. Are FPJ’s rivals rattled?

Raul Roco says he’s not, and he seemed genuinely confident when he visited The STAR the other night. Those surveys must be keeping his hopes up despite FPJ’s rising star.

Roco is in fact packaging himself as the candidate of hope, and his hand symbol — taken from the sign language of deaf-mutes — stands for love. He arrived at our office in a Valentine red floral shirt.

On the day FPJ officially accepted the draft of an opposition coalition, we asked whether Roco was afraid of the actor. The reply: "No, he’s my friend."

Roco said he was inspired by a book about Tip O’Neill, the Democratic Party congressman who became speaker of the US House of Representatives. Among the gems Roco remembered from the book: "Never fear any contender. In fact never even mention their names."

Earlier in the day, Roco had voiced what others feared in an FPJ victory. Roco repeated it to us: "Who will run the (FPJ) government? … What kind of government are they offering?"

Right now FPJ’s coalition is still busy finalizing its lineup. We’ve heard no platform of government, and there’s probably none at the moment. Roco is proud to say that his Reporma party is the only one with a clear agenda. Which is? For starters, free education and more jobs.

* * *

That sounds like the campaign spiel of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo the economist. But Roco the lawyer thinks they have different constituencies, and he thinks his track record will persuade people that he can go beyond rhetoric, do the job better and deliver on his promises.

Roco had an ugly parting last year with the President, and he makes no effort to mask his bitterness.

He said he was accused of corruption for the first time in his life, over posters that were approved by Malacańang, while the administration overlooked its own overpriced posters of soon-to-be-candidate Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

"She failed miserably (as president)," he said. "We were the plotters (at EDSA II). We put her there but she failed in her commitment."

Roco naughtily suggested that the President drop out of the race and instead campaign to become the next secretary-general of the United Nations. It’s Asia’s turn when Kofi Annan retires, Roco said, and one of the requirements for the position is fluency in English and either French or Spanish. President Arroyo speaks fluent Spanish.

French Ambassador Renee Veyret told me yesterday that this is not so; the language proficiency requirement is English and French, no ifs or buts about it. I don’t think President GMA is fluent in French. And at any rate, she’ll probably tell Roco that he can go ahead and drop out of the 2004 race to seek Annan’s position.

"I will," Roco grinned mischievously, "after I become president."

If there’s no hope of the opposition fielding a common candidate, there’s no hope either of a GMA-Roco teamup.

* * *

Unlike FPJ, Roco the consistent survey topnotcher has become the subject of ugly stories. Not about corruption, but about wife beating. The rumors have circulated for months, as soon as he was trumpeted as a likely presidential contender.

It was the only time that Roco showed a flash of temper during his visit, but he quickly recovered and the candidate’s grin was back. "That’s an absolute lie," he said, and he reminded those spreading the story that it’s against the 10 Commandments to bear false witness.

The 62-year-old Roco likes to point out that he’s the only presidential aspirant who rose from poverty to national prominence on his own merit. His father was a farmer who reached only third grade; his mother was a schoolteacher. He vows to work for "basic values" such as meritocracy and an end to the culture of patronage. He also promises honest governance.

"The Filipino is good. It’s the leaders who are bad," he said. "The new year should bring about a new government."

That may sound like more of the same campaign rhetoric and motherhood statements to you, but Roco thinks the Filipino voter can discern which candidate can deliver.

But what if all that the Pinoy voter wants is entertainment? Every candidate has his own strengths, Roco said, and he believes he has as much of a chance as FPJ.

After Joseph Estrada bombed in the greatest performance of his life, the movie star appeal has become stale, Roco said. He believes the FPJ show is on its second run and people have grown tired of it: "Second run na yan. Nabenta na sa takilya."

* * *

One thing you can say about Philippine politics: there’s never a dull moment. A merry Christmas to all!

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved