(AFP) – When President Arroyo visited the market in this town, there were none of the shrieking fans who follow her main election rival, film star Fernando Poe.

Only the crates of day-old chicks seemed to get excited as the impish leader, wearing a tailored beige pant-suit and clogs, disturbed the peace of a pet stall, stepping nimbly over bags of feed.

But after a grueling 90-day campaign, it is the 57-year-old grandmother, once described by supporters as having a "charisma deficit," and not the country’s most famous film star who has a seven-point lead in opinion polls.

"She’s small but terrible," said shopkeeper Tina Banauag, who told AFP she would vote for Mrs. Arroyo and not Poe in today’s polls, even though the actor was born near this town.

"This," she said, pointing to her head, "is what you need to serve the people."

The daughter of a former president and a university classmate of former US President Bill Clinton, Mrs. Arroyo was eight points behind Poe in the polls when election season got underway.

"Relax, our opponent is a patsy," said deposed president Joseph Estrada of the woman who took his post and put him in jail on corruption charges after a military-backed popular revolt in January 2001.

But analysts say a tenacious work ethic, relentless alliance-building and the advantage of being the incumbent that allowed her to piggyback her campaign on the vast resources of the government, have turned the tables.

In her pursuit of tactical alliances with provincial power brokers who could command the votes in their respective strongholds, the President cast off a close aide and brought in Estrada ally Miriam Defensor-Santiago.

She also won the backing of the influential bloc-voting Iglesia ni Cristo sect, which has always supported Estrada.

In the final independent opinion poll released Saturday by the Social Weather Stations, Mrs. Arroyo held a seven-point lead over high school dropout Poe, 37 percent compared to 30 percent.

The contest was about "charisma versus machine," said election strategist Antonio Gatmaitan of the Manila-based Political Economy Applied Research Foundation.

He said Mrs. Arroyo had a well-organized campaign that tailored the articulate economist’s preference for working smaller crowds, while Poe went for "tent revival-type meetings" involving large crowds.

Criticized for being aloof and short-tempered, the President has cast herself as a "caring leader" to blunt Poe’s filmstar draw, said her campaign strategist Alex Magno.

She targeted the poor, who make up the majority of Filipinos and form the core support of both Poe and his friend and patron Estrada.

Water trucks bearing "Patubig ni Gloria" streamers delivered tap water daily to Metro Manila’s parched and teeming slums, and jobless residents were suddenly given government jobs sweeping streets and cleaning sewers. Some families suddenly received health insurance cards bearing the President’s smiling face.

Mrs. Arroyo has denied plundering government funds for her campaign.

"When I give out PhilHealth cards I am only implementing the law that seeks to provide universal health insurance," she said. "The road users’ tax is meant for road maintenance, so when I hire people to maintain our streets, I am merely implementing the law."

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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