MANILA, April 12, 2004
By Marichu Villanueva (People Asia Magazine) - When President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo made the dramatic announcement in October last year that she was running for a full six-year term, things were never the same again for her and the country.

From that day on, Mrs. Arroyo became "the candidate," whose every word and action was that of a sitting president with her eyes trained on the May 10, 2004 elections.

This announcement came a few months after her speech during Rizal Day ceremonies in Baguio City in 2002 that she had decided to just be a "non-candidate" so that she can focus her efforts to unify the "deeply divided" Filipino nation.

"In the coming weeks, we will be launching a series of powerful positive actions that would improve the lives of our people. Major announcements would be made in January," President Arroyo said that fateful Rizal Day.

And true enough, the year 2003 saw the Arroyo administration steamroller her "Strong Republic" projects and program of government when she had a respite from political attacks.

"However, we also know that we will soon enter the political period leading up to the elections in 2004. My reading of the political wind tells me that the 2004 elections may well go down in history as among our bitterly contested elections ever," the President acknowledged in the same Dec. 30.

And as she expected, Mrs. Arroyo is now facing formidable rivals and is ranged against five other candidates, namely, popular movie actor Fernando Poe Jr., former Education Secretary Raul Roco, opposition Sen. Panfilo Lacson, Jesus is Lord Movement leader Bro. Eddie Villanueva and Eddie Gil.

Mrs. Arroyo, who is turning 57 next month, is one grizzled politician who is not new in hard-fought political battles.

What her camp trumpets as the President's edge over her rivals is her "experience" from three years in the presidency. She had on-the-job training after being catapulted into office in January 2001 at the end of the "EDSA Dos" People Power revolution, thus completing the unfinished term of deposed President Joseph Estrada.

Having learned lessons well from her father, the late President Diosdado Macapagal, who was elected into office but lost in his re-election bid, Mrs. Arroyo is determined not to make history repeat itself in her case.

A deeply religious person, President Arroyo kicked off her campaign literally on "high ground" in Cavinti, a town located in the high terrain of Laguna, where she started with a special Mass celebrated for her at the Parish of the Transfiguration.

She was accompanied by her running mate, Sen. Noli "Kabayan" de Castro and their 12-man senatorial ticket running under the new administration ticket called Koalisyon ng Karanasan at Katapatan para sa Kinabukasan or K-4 for short.

Her controversial husband, First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, has obviously agreed with her campaign handlers to stay nowhere near her during this campaign period.

President Arroyo, De Castro and the K-4 senatorial bets were all warmly welcomed by rain-drenched Cavinti folks as they trooped to the church to see them.

From the church, President Arroyo walked the rest of the way up to the Burol Elementary School, pumping hands along the way with shrieking hordes of Cavinti women, their husbands and children.

Despite the pouring rain, Mrs. Arroyo climbed the three flights of concrete stairs to the public school grounds of Burol (which means "hill") without any difficulty.

"We're going to the high ground!" Mrs. Arroyo told this writer as we walked together to the site of her kick-off campaign rally with De Castro.

"Why we chose Cavinti for our kick-off campaign? Cavinti is located on high ground. So we want to start our campaign on high moral grounds, high political grounds. We will present our platforms and not engage in mudslinging," the President told Cavinti folks.

On hand to help Mrs. Arroyo were her Cabinet officials led by Interior and Local Government Secretary Jose Lina Jr., who was formerly Laguna governor; pro-administration members of Congress; retired generals and other government officials.

Albay Rep. Jose "Joey" Salceda was among those who motored all the way to Cavinti to show his support for his former Economics professor at the Ateneo de Manila.

"The `Gloria' of 1992, 1995 and 1998 has resurfaced to seize the yellow jersey from FPJ," Salceda said, referring to the opposition's presidential standard-bearer who, according to opinion surveys, was leading the presidential race this early.

Speaking in sports lingo, Salceda explained that the "yellow jersey" refers to the leader of the pack in a cycling race like the "Tour of the Philippines" as candidates go around the country in a campaign.

"With three national campaigns plus two for her father, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo employs indefatigable campaign stamina, a keen sense of the political environment at the grassroots where it matters," Salceda told this writer.

"The much-vaunted machinery is beginning to run smoothly to her huge advantage," Salceda said, based on what he saw in the Laguna rallies of Mrs. Arroyo.

In all her campaign spiels at the hustings, President Arroyo makes it a point to ask the Filipino voters to factor in "experience" and track record in governance of the administration ticket over its less experienced rivals in the May 10 elections.

And at each campaign rally, Mrs. Arroyo enumerates by heart the major accomplishments of her "short period of presidency" that have improved the lives of the Filipino people.

"And these are just down payments. The next installments would come in the next six years in office if you would vote for me and my running mate Kabayan and the K-4 senatorial candidates," Mrs. Arroyo vows.

Frequently mentioned in her campaign vows include her target to create six million more new jobs for the next six years; 500,000 hectares to be planted with "Gloria" high breed rice that doubles or triples the harvest of farmers; and the implementation of a "universal" health insurance coverage for all Filipinos, among others.

To help her achieve these goals, President Arroyo says she has four re-electionist senators in her 12-man team: Robert Barbers, Robert Jaworski, Rodolfo Biazon and John Osmena; and two "balik-Senado" (returning senators), namely Orlando Mercado and Miriam Defensor-Santiago.

Two of her K-4 senatorial bets are her former Cabinet members - former Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon and former Trade Secretary Manuel A. Roxas II.

The President also highlights having in her ticket three provincial governors -Lito Lapid of Pampanga, Ramon "Bong" Revilla of Cavite, and Paruk Hussin of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.

She always singles out lady lawyer Pia Cayetano, daughter of the late Lakas Sen. Renato Cayetano, as her Senate bet representing women, the youth and young professionals.

President Arroyo has been mostly out of her office at Malacanang Palace on the first week of the 90-day election campaign period, but her official spokesmen reassured the public that the affairs of the State were not being left unattended by the Chief Executive.

Campaign spokesman Michael Defensor and presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye separately gave these reassurances as they joined President Arroyo and the K-4 ticket in their kickoff campaign in Laguna with many Cabinet officials and Palace staff in tow.

Defensor said the President "manages to balance her duty as incumbent Chief Executive and as standard-bearer of the ruling K-4 coalition" even while she goes on campaign trips all over the country.

For his part, Bunye pointed out that Executive Secretary Alberto Romulo, as the so-called "Little President," mans the fort at the Office of the President whenever Mrs. Arroyo is out on campaign sorties.

"And Secretary Romulo is always here to perform what needs to be done by the President as if she were present," Bunye pointed out.

Bunye insisted that public funds are not being used in the campaign of President Arroyo and the K-4 administration candidates even if the political activities were defended by the Palace as part of her governance functions.

And to obviously deflect criticisms of her using government resources, the President goes out on her campaign without any of her usual protocol officers in tow and no government vehicles except those of the Presidential Security Group (PSG). What are instead used are hired coasters and buses.

PSG Commander Col. Delfin Bangit, however, admitted the President's campaign sorties pose a lot of security challenges as they do not want to curtail her movements in political rallies where overeager people wanting to shake hands sometimes pull her to them.

Bangit, who has put up his "Task Force: Golden Shield" for the 90-day campaign sorties of President Arroyo, revealed to this writer that his nerves are on edge whenever the President and De Castro clamber up an open pick-up to wave at the crowd.

Still, the President is undaunted. She is a seasoned campaigner. And if she wins the elections, she's the only one who could boast she is a tried and tested president

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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