MANILA, March 18, 2004  (STAR) By Jess Diaz And Paolo Romero - The word war worsens.

Opposition presidential hopeful Sen. Panfilo Lacson said yesterday political handlers of his rival, movie actor Fernando Poe Jr., are blocking efforts to unify the political opposition.

"Yung mga handlers ni FPJ ang nag-decide na i-cancel yung one-on-one meeting namin," he told radio station dzMM.

He said this was the information relayed to him by the still unnamed Poe emissary who called him last Thursday while he was barnstorming Cebu and Negros Oriental to arrange what could have been their fourth dialogue since before the start of the election campaign.

Later yesterday, Lacson said he will talk with FPJ again only if Poe gets rid of "trapos" (traditional politicians) around him.

In Cagayan de Oro City, Poe’s Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) accused Lacson of not really being interested and sincere in uniting the opposition and instead using the unification talks to revive his flagging campaign.

KNP leaders Sen. Edgardo Angara and Sen. Vicente Sotto III challenged Lacson to "improve himself" as they denied the senator’s allegations that they were the ones responsible for the scuttling of the crucial meeting set last Tuesday between the two presidential rivals.

Lacson, who belongs to the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP), did not name who Poe’s political handlers are, but he was obviously referring to his party bosses, Angara, who is LDP president, and Sotto, LDP executive vice president and Poe’s campaign manager.

House Minority Leader Carlos Padilla, Lacson’s lone senatorial candidate, said it is Angara and Sotto "who, from the beginning, have been preventing FPJ and Ping from unifying."

He said weeks before the campaign period started on Feb. 10, Angara and Sotto had dumped Lacson despite the fact that the latter is a member of their party "because they were hell bent on anointing Mr. Poe."

He said his party leaders later disregarded a fair and credible selection process that Poe and Lacson had agreed on in one of their meetings and proceeded to anoint the movie actor.

Lacson’s spokesman and political strategist Angelito Banayo also laid the blame for the failed meeting on Sotto and other Poe handlers.

"They are preventing the meetings. That is why Senator Lacson felt bad. Even before the meetings, there have been so many speculations and spins from the handlers of Poe," Banayo told radio station dzEC.

He said the actor’s handlers have been trying to put one over Lacson from day one, and they totally ignored an agreement for a fair selection process by unilaterally declaring Poe the opposition presidential candidate.

He also said it was Poe’s camp, and not Lacson, which sought the meeting. "Don’t blame us for what happened and don’t say we asked for the meeting. We did not ask for the meeting," he said.

The two LDP factions had been locked in a bitter quarrel over who should be the opposition standard-bearer in the May elections.

The KNP said the latest flap over the canceled talks was Lacson’s way of boosting his ratings.

"He’s (Lacson) just using talks to increase his ratings, his publicity," said Sotto. "We don’t feel like talking to him because it would be useless to talk to him if he continues to use the meetings (for his candidacy)."

Angara said Lacson has "insulted" Poe by insinuating that he is a "puppet" of his two close advisers, adding he and Sotto are clueless on the talks between the rivals. "Look at how he (insults) our candidate by calling him a puppet, and that’s his quirk that he must correct," Angara said. "He must behave as someone who is sincere."

Sotto said he, Angara and Poe have agreed not to comment any further on the status of the talks, noting that the KNP standard-bearer has been true to his word not to talk about the meetings.

"At this point, we agreed not to talk about it and just concentrate on our campaign," he said. "After all, unification is not crucial to our victory."

In his radio interview, Lacson said Poe should have overruled his political handlers and pushed through with the meeting out of courtesy. "When you set a meeting like that, you just don’t cancel it," he said.

He also said he did not understand why the movie actor’s camp wanted their dialogue to be secret.

"The media asked me if a meeting between us has been set. I said yes. Did the other camp want me to lie? I cannot do that; otherwise, you won’t trust my word," he said.

On Tuesday, still smarting from the unexpected cancellation of his meeting with Poe, Lacson hinted that his opposition rival may not be in control of his campaign.

"Is he in control?" he asked in the course of a chat with journalists.

KNP vice-presidential bet Sen. Loren Legarda said the KNP already had an inkling as early as Monday night that the scheduled meeting will not push through but did not elaborate.

The scheduled sorties of Lacson and Poe in Cagayan de Oro nearly coincided, fueling speculations that a one-on-one meeting was to take place.

Poe arrived in the city yesterday afternoon to kick off his five-day sortie in Lanao provinces, Cotabato and Davao and is going to spend the night at the Pryce Plaza Hotel. Lacson is scheduled to arrive here today and is reportedly going to be billeted in the same hotel.

Angara and Legarda also dismissed Lacson’s complaint that Poe’s mobile phone is always off. "That’s a non-issue," Angara said. "He must talk of substantive issues like the economy."

Legarda said it is understandable if Poe’s mobile phone is switched off most of the time since the actor is often on campaign sorties. "You don’t expect his cellphone to be on during rallies," she said.

KNP senatorial candidate Sen. Aquilino Pimentel said that while a unification with Lacson would boost Poe’s candidacy, it will not be "a critical factor."

Another KNP senatorial bet, former senator Juan Ponce Enrile, said Lacson’s hardline stance was the main hindrance to a united opposition. "There could never be a win-win outcome of any talks if the other party maintains a hardline position," he said.

At Malacañang, officials said the failed opposition unity talks would favor President Arroyo, who is seeking a full six-year term in the May 10 elections.

"Perhaps there is a favorable effect but again our President would rather concentrate on the positive side of the administration," Mrs. Arroyo’s spokesman Ignacio Bunye said over government-run Radyo ng Bayan.

"We do not rely on the weakness of the opposition. What we want our people to see is our administration’s program is really much more superior," he said, adding the President could not be bothered by internal affairs of other political parties.

Palace campaign spokesman Michael Defensor concurred with Bunye’s assessment, saying "while their squabbling helps us, I think this is a disservice to our people which I think should be a greater concern." — With Bong Fabe, Jose Rodel Clapano, Marichu Villanueva

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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