Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - They may not necessarily be the best of friends or allies, but the senatorial candidates assembled under the administration banner are held together by a common belief in the power of endorsement of one leader-President Aquino.
To make them easier to remember-and sell to voters-administration strategists have taken out the cumbersome name of their coalition, which includes the names of the traditional rivals Nacionalista Party and Liberal Party.
Forget the "Liberal Party-Nacionalista Party-Nationalist People's Coalition" alliance. Henceforth, call the administration candidates in May's midterm elections "Team Pinoy."
Aurora Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara, a candidate on the team, acknowledges that the new name of the coalition can be confused with "P-Noy," the administration's preferred reference to Aquino.
But who would mind it, especially with Aquino still enjoying immense popularity three years into his term?
"It's P-Noy who binds us together," Angara said in a recent interview. "But we decided to use 'Pinoy' to send the message that this campaign is for all Filipinos."
Indeed, it's the President who keeps the balance in a team that includes former Sen. Jamby Madrigal and Rep. Cynthia Villar. The team-up was unimaginable just three years ago, when Madrigal and Villar's husband, Sen. Manuel Villar, contested and lost the race for Malacanang, which Aquino took by the sheer force of people power.
Senator Villar, portrayed as the biggest spender during that campaign and persistently linked to the unpopular President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was the regular subject of Madrigal's attacks in the Senate, many of them aimed low.
Like the Aquino camp, Madrigal pounced on the "double insertion" scandal involving the C-5 Road southern extension project with earth-shaking effect.
In the Senate, Villar's main defender was Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, likewise a runner on Team Pinoy despite his position as the chamber's minority floor leader.
But three years have passed and the camps have moved on.
Angara sees the President as the "X Factor" if Team Pinoy were to beat the equally "formidable" senatorial slate put together by Vice President Jejomar Binay under the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA).
But Angara said the Aquino factor would depend on "how hard he pushes for the candidates."
"It could be a repeat of the '87 [campaign] when [then President] Corazon [Aquino] pushed hard for her candidates and 22 out of the 24 [administration candidates] won," Angara said. "I think that's possible. Anything can happen."
Besides Angara, Madrigal, Cayetano and Villar, reelectionist Senators Loren Legarda, Francis Escudero, Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III and Antonio Trillanes IV, former Senators Ramon Magsaysay Jr., former Akbayan Rep. Risa Hontiveros, Grace Poe-Llamanzares (daughter of the late movie actor Fernando Poe Jr.) and
Aquino's cousin Paolo Benigno "Bam" Aquino IV make up Team Pinoy.
Only six of them, including Legarda and Escudero, fare well in the early polls.
At a recent meeting with them in Malacanang, Aquino assured his candidates of his full support during the campaign.
"[Mr. Aquino] assured us of [the Liberal Party's] support and about our concerns, such as advertising [and] advocacies," Angara said.
"[The meeting] was more of a brainstorming," said an administration source. Funding for the candidates' ads was not discussed, the source said.
Angara expects a tough battle with the UNA candidates, especially with three veteran politicians behind the minimally opposition coalition. Besides Binay, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and former President Joseph Estrada are the leaders of the UNA.
"They're formidable, especially with their mass base," Angara said.
Estrada feels the combined endorsement of the UNA trio would be too much even for Aquino. His basis: the Pulse Asia survey, taken from Feb. 26 to March 9 last year, that showed Binay was the top endorser for senatorial candidates.
Seventy-three percent of the respondents said they would vote for candidates endorsed by Binay, while 66 percent said they would vote for Aquino's candidates.
Estrada placed third, with 51 percent of the respondents saying they would vote for candidates he would endorse.
"It's easy. We are three. He's only one," Estrada said in Filipino in an earlier interview.
Like Team Pinoy, the UNA ticket is composed of strange bedfellows.
On the UNA slate are Rep. Milagros Magsaysay and former Rep. Juan Miguel Zubiri, two Arroyo allies who will now campaign with some of the former President's fiercest critics.
There is also former Sen. Richard Gordon, who once raised hell after then President Estrada kicked him out as chairman of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority.
About two weeks before the campaign starts, all is relatively calm between the UNA and Team Pinoy. Angara describes the relationship between the two teams as "very cozy" because "we are all supporting the President."
But he believes the two camps will eventually reach a "point of separation" and that's when the President "starts to make statements to that effect."
"I think it will be less cozy than the present relationship," he said.
Navotas Rep. Tobias Tiangco, the UNA's campaign manager, describes his coalition as a "constructive opposition." "Meaning we support the good programs of the President, but we will also call him out on issues [that] we think [will] not benefit the people," he said earlier this week.
Riding two horses
Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone, a Liberal leader and a formerly staunch Arroyo supporter, earlier criticized the UNA, saying it "cannot have the best of both worlds."
"The UNA cannot straddle two horses by foisting the grand deception upon our voters that it remains fully supportive of President Aquino's program while undermining his daang matuwid agenda with its leaders' incessant attacks on his reform programs," Evardone said in a statement.
The word war has begun.
With a report from Michael Lim Ubac