, MARCH 21, 2007 (STAR) By Joanne Rae M. Ramirez - You canít put a good man down.

Itís even harder to put a good woman down.

After three years out of public office and characterized by what she calls "personal battles," former senator Loren Legarda finds herself on top of the heap in the run-up to the May 14 senatorial elections.

Virtually every survey makes her this summerís "leading lady."

How does she feel about being number one in the surveys?

"Extremely happy, gratified but also stressed," she sighs as she leans back on a chair in her dining room on a rare break from the campaign trail. She nibbles on a piece of inihaw na panga, which she brought back from one of her campaign sorties in the south. "Iím tired," she yawns, still lovely despite the lack of sleep.

Why does she think she is rating so well, even despite her loss (which she is contesting) in the vice presidential race to Noli de Castro in 2004 and criticisms that she was too ambitious and too much in hurry?

"Why is it that when a man my age (she is 47 now) aspires for higher office, he is praised as a young leader. Why is it if she is a woman, she is called Ďoverly ambitious?í That is unfair to women," she protests. "We should not look at gender. We should look at track records, qualifications. How could I have been in a hurry ó I had six years in the Senate. I was Majority Leader already."

Her assistant shows me a copy of a survey commissioned by the administration showing Loren leading all senatorial candidates, with 62 percent. The survey also shows Loren leading among male voters polled (57 percent); among Class E voters polled (57 percent); among voters between 18 to 24 (74 percent); and even among those 45 years and older (56 percent).

What did she do right? "First, I fought the principled fight for three years. I was there waging a seemingly quixotic or lonely battle. I could not be dissuaded from pursuing what I call this principled fight. So maybe part of that, I may not have had office, but despite the so-called loss, it was a financial, an electoral and emotional loss, kasi masakit. Kumbaga, sinuntok, pero tumayo ako agad. For three years I continued working. Maybe they saw that itís not easy to knock me out."

What did she bounce back from?

"Physical tiredness, emotional tiredness of course, when you come from a political fight and you lose and your votes are not counted. When your personal relationships have failed (she is estranged from husband Tony Leviste, whom she says she continues to pray for), when you have disappointments in relationships... thatís part of life. It happens to the women from the barrio, it happens to the most powerful women."

Loren does not agree with observations that strong women dislike strong women.

"I donít think it applies to me. In fact, I like strong women. I sympathize with weak women and I think itís my mission to tell them Iím not as strong as you think I am. I also have weaknesses. My life is not a fairy tale. I donít think I can be a good leader who can govern our country if Iím not battle-scarred."

Lunch break is over and Loren sits up straight. At 47, she is still attractive, but claims she has no suitors. "I donít even consider myself beautiful. Iím not vain. I never had Botox, I never go to the dermatologist. I never go to the beauty parlor. My nails are pudpud. I need a haircut. I donít put too many creams on my face. I drink lots of water. I stay away from CATS ó caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and stress. But I violate the stress! I live a simple life. I donít go out at night. I donít like going to bars, discos or parties, I try to sleep at 10 or 11."

Even when she is legally free to do so, she claims she has no plans of marrying again.

"No man is worth it!" she quips.

She sets aside her fork on one side of her plate. She does not take coffee or tea, but work perks her up. She stands up. There are more meetings and speeches ahead.

She intends to keep the lead.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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