MANILA,  April 29, 2004
By Sheila Crisostomo and Sandy Araneta - The fight goes on for Alyansa ng Pag-asa standard-bearer Raul Roco.

After a two-week medical leave in the United States, Roco returned to the country before noon yesterday to a raucous welcome from supporters and announced that he would not back out from the presidential race.

It was not clear, however, whether he was again troubled by prostate cancer — the prognosis of Philippine doctors, which prompted him to seek a second opinion in the United States.

An official statement from Alyansa said he was not suffering from cancer. Roco himself was less categorical, saying only that he was "not going to die soon."

The 63-year-old former senator and education secretary, who has ranked third in most surveys behind President Arroyo and opposition frontrunner Fernando Poe Jr., quashed rumors he would quit. He also said his ailment was curable.

"I will run," Roco told a news conference at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, where a long convoy of cars waited to take him across the metropolis through the post-noontime traffic.

"There is no immediate threat to my life and my ability to perform all the functions of public office remains unhindered," he said. "I’m glad to report that my doctors, after a series of tests, confirmed that my physical pain can be treated and kept under control."

He disclosed that the last two weeks have been a period of soul-searching for him, and said that the next two weeks will be a period of soul-searching for the nation.

"We must now all strive for an honest government serving a healthy and literate people. With your help and support, we will overcome. By God’s grace, the Filipino will prevail," he said.

At Malacañang, Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said Mrs. Arroyo welcomed Roco’s return to the presidential campaign and wishes for his speedy recovery.

"The President has said earlier that Secretary Roco is a very worthy opponent and we need people like him who (have) been campaigning on issues," Bunye said in a press briefing.

He refused to comment though on the reported lack of transparency on the part of Roco to reveal the actual findings of his doctors in Houston on his supposed prostate cancer.

"This is something that is for Secretary Roco to divulge. That is really his privilege but we’re glad to see him," Bunye said.

Roco arrived on board Cathay Pacific Airways Flight CX-902 from Hong Kong at around 10:55 a.m. with his wife Sonia, daughter Sareena and personal assistant Jetka Lim.

Emerging from the airport, a large throng of followers hurled confetti and yelled his name. Cars honked their horns and a brass band played. Streamers were also put up and it was as if the presidential campaign was taken to the airport.

Roco, flanked by his wife and vice presidential and senatorial candidates and trailed by TV cameras, smiled and waved back, basking in the sudden surge of attention triggered by his medical condition and brief absence.

He promptly joined the motorcade that wove its way around Metro Manila to show the public he was still in the presidential race. From the airport, the motorcade passed along NAIA Road, Seaside Drive, Roxas Boulevard, EDSA extension, Ayala Avenue and EDSA all the way to the Ma. della Strada Parish Church in Katipunan in Quezon City.

Alyansa supporters lined the sidewalk and waved to Roco and his partymates. Along Ayala Avenue, confetti rained as office workers temporarily left their work to catch a glimpse of the returning Alyansa standard-bearer.

Roco, who has visibly lost weight, left two weeks ago for Houston, Texas after complaining of lower back pain that was complicated by the rigors of a national campaign. Asked about news reports that he was suffering from prostate cancer, Roco confirmed he had the ailment but it was cured in 1996.

"I had prostate malignancy removed completely, successfully in 1996. It has been confirmed that it has been controlled, can be treated and very well managed," he said, adding that United States presidential bet John Kerry, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and Hollywood actor Sean Connery also have the same ailment.

Roco thanked all his supporters and partymates for the many prayers for his good health.

"If blessed by the Filipino people, I will serve and I will serve well," he stressed.

Unlike other candidates who have resorted heavily to theatrical gimmicks to woo voters in a country where many regard image as more important than skills, Roco has stuck to low-key appearances to explain his platform.

Roco said the elections were crucial in curing the country’s many political and economic woes.

"It is no longer a matter of winning an election. It is a matter of raising the Filipino from his sickbed. There is more at stake than installing another head of government in Malacañang. We need to install a regime of moral values. We need to cure the nation of the disease that ravages it today," Roco said. ‘Full Speed Ahead’

Alyansa senatorial candidate Frank Chavez admitted that Roco’s arrival would reinvigorate the party’s campaign.

"It has infused a lot of enthusiasm again. It’s like having a blood transfusion where before there was doubt, there was hesitation. Now, we’re full speed ahead," he claimed.

Alyansa senatorial bet Perfecto Yasay, who initially expressed disappointment that Roco kept his medical condition then, shared a similar sentiment. "We’re just worried that the doctors would say that he is no longer fit to run. Now that he is back, the fight continues. We are on this," he said.

Former congressman Edcel Lagman, now vice president of the Reform Oriented Citizens Organization (R.OO), said that the decision of Roco to pursue his presidential bid affords the electorate the democratic option of selecting the best qualified candidate for president.

"Roco presents himself as the best choice given his vast experience, tested performance, unsullied integrity and pro-people agenda," Lagman said in a statement.

Senate President Franklin Drilon, however, said that he is confident that the return of Roco to the campaign trail, along with the possible unification of the forces of Sen. Panfilo Lacson and Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) standard-bearer Fernando Poe Jr., will not affect Mrs. Arroyo’s chances in the coming polls.

In a press conference, Drilon said that the President will maintain her 10 percent lead over Poe.

"I think the President will keep her lead, if not improve it," he said. "I believe that the trend is irreversible even with the return of Senator Roco."

Most analysts have regarded Roco as an election underdog because he lacked the machinery of traditional political parties.

But his decision to stay in the race was perceived to have an impact on Mrs. Arroyo’s chances. Both command a following among the middle and upper classes and business people.

This constituency prefers their strong academic background and grasp of economic issues over the inexperienced Poe, a high school dropout and popular movie actor. Recent election surveys showed Mrs. Arroyo widening her lead over Poe.

Drilon, however, said that when Roco went to the US, most of his support went to the so-called "undecided" voters, which did not have any effect on Mrs. Arroyo’s presidential bid.

"The undecided may or may not return to him, depending on how they perceive his (Roco’s) chances or his health. So, his being back on the campaign train will not have any effect on us," Drilon pointed out. — With Marichu Villanueva, Jose Rodel Clapano, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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