MANILA,  May 2, 2004
(AFP) To Fernando Poe's supporters he is a white knight untainted by grubby politics who can give the Philippines a fresh start, but critics say he is an uneducated film star who will horrify foreign investors and bring more economic gloom.

In a country in love with celebrity, Poe, 64, is the biggest movie star around. He made his name playing Robin Hood-style policemen and soldiers, and has a huge following among the poorer section of society.

The latest opinion polls have Poe, who dropped out of school and has no experience of running for office, slightly behind incumbent Gloria Arroyo in the race for the presidency in May 10 polls.

However the race is tight and pollsters say a large section of undecided voters could yet bring about a Poe presidency, a prospect that has spooked the financial markets and triggered rumours of military coups.

The man known here as simply "Da King" announced his decision to run for the presidency last year with a simple sales pitch. "I'm sincere and dedicated and I love my country," he said.

But after notching up an early lead in the polls, his campaign has been lackluster and dogged by the lack of coherent policy, Poe's poor public speaking skills, concern over his lack of education and high-profile flashes of temper.

Born Ronald Allan Kelley Poe, the son of film star Fernando Poe and an American woman born in the Philippines, Poe always seemed destined for a life in the movies.

He changed his name to Fernando Poe Junior, to bank on his father's popularity, and today he is still best known by the acronym "FPJ."

Poe insists he only dropped out of high school to work in films and support his family after the death of his father. He started in a film exchange office and in 1950 got his first break in a film called "Son of Palaris".

The films soon made him rich and he shot to fame playing stoic heroes who overcome fearsome odds to fight for the common man.

Playing World War II guerrillas and honest cops who are quick with their fists, "FPJ" defeated hordes of Japanese soldiers, gangsters, corrupt politicians and supernatural monsters in scores of movies.

Through his years in the spotlight, Poe has guarded his privacy closely and has tried to cultivate an image of incorruptibility, giving few interviews and revealing little of his supposed storybook marriage to fellow movie star Susan Roces.

However the image slipped a little in February when Poe was forced to admit he had fathered a child out of wedlock with a minor starlet, denting his reputation as "Mr. Clean."

Poe is banking on Filipinos' love of celebrity and their habit of voting film stars into office. Poe's close friend and fellow movie star Joseph Estrada won the 1998 presidential elections by a landslide despite a known history of drinking, gambling and womanizing.

It was Estrada -- from his prison cell where is facing corruption allegations -- who has actively pushed Poe to run against Arroyo. This has raised suspicions that Poe is running mainly so he can pardon his old friend.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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