Like a stealthy army preparing to launch a major offensive, the ruling administration coalition Lakas-Kampi-CMD is moving heaven and earth at the grassroots to save the lagging presidential candidacy of former Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr.
The question that perplexes many party leaders is: Considering that Teodoro is running behind, why move only now?
The ruling coalition, which enjoys a headlock on 70 percent of local government positions, is pinning its hopes on superior resources and widespread party machinery to swing the tide of battle.
Banking on these advantages, it plans to assert its superiority with carefully synchronized offensives timed at the start of the campaign for local positions on March 26.
The opening salvo of this make-or-break offensive will be new TV commercials targeting the youth on Monday.
Teodoro?s spokesperson, former Press Secretary Mike Toledo, said the commercials would be aired with frequencies rivaling those of the front-runners, Senators Benigno S. Aquino III of the Liberal Party and Manuel Villar of the Nacionalista Party. Between them, they have spent close to P2 billion, dominating the airwaves, according to the media firm AGB Nielsen.
Teodoro?s ads will zero in on the target segment that the coalition hopes will swing the tide of battle to his side, the youth ranging in age from 18 to 39, who constitute 52 percent of the 50 million voters registered, according to Toledo.
Teodoro has been doing well in mock elections in schools recently. Campaign strategists have selected this key segment to focus on, Toledo says.
Why they waited this long to launch a massive offensive has bothered many party leaders, who have started raising questions in public.
Calm before storm
Based on the latest opinion poll in the last week of February, Aquino led Villar by 2 percentage points in voter preference, 36 to 34. Former President Joseph Estrada of Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino was third with 15 percent, and Teodoro fourth with 6 percent.
Buried under a sustained barrage of television advertising by Villar costing upward of P1 billion as of February, and Aquino?s celebrity-packed barnstorming led by controversial actress-sister Kris, Teodoro scaled up his advertising to exceed Aquino?s in January, according to AGB Nielsen. Then he scaled down his TV presence in February preparatory to the big bang on Monday.
The coalition?s strategists hope to move Teodoro closer to the front-runners, where they think superior party resources could later extricate him from the jaws of defeat with less than two months left before the May 10 elections.
They appear to have been saving precious party resources for the last-ditch offensive. But why they should be conserving funds has perplexed party candidates, who have publicly decried lack of support.
The good German
Early this month, veteran publicist Reli German, campaign manager of Teodoro?s running mate, actor Edu Manzano, exposed the ruling party?s apparent lack of funds by complaining publicly that Manzano had not received much-needed ?logistical and funding requirements.?
?We need so many leaflets, so many campaign materials, TV and radio commercials,? German told the Inquirer?s TJ Burgonio. ?Give us the support for this,? he said. ?The support is coming in in trickles.?
German?s public bellyaching may have prematurely exposed the coalition?s planned major offensive.
Responding to German, Lakas-Kampi-CMD secretary general Francis Manglapus said: ?They?ve received some already. I think Reli?s complaint is more about the ads. This is going to be settled in the next 10 days.? (That would be March 25.)
?There?s always never enough money.? Manglapus said. ?That?s the reality of elections. But we?re sticking together. There are some commitments coming up.?
D-Day on March 26
Appearing together in a television morning show the next day, Teodoro and Manzano seemed to have patched up their differences. But in trying to diminish the rift, Teodoro may have let the cat out of the bag prematurely.
Teodoro said his team would perform better once the campaign period for local officials started.
What is so important about March 26? Manglapus had to disclose more details to quell the rebellion over funds.
?It?s a question of allocating resources accordingly,? Manglapus said. ?We have a high overhead cost because of all the candidates we have to support down to the mayors. But there are funds, and they will come shortly.?
Manglapus was trying bravely to explain the coalition?s strategy without having to disclose too much of it. But he said enough already for analysts to figure out the plan without having to enroll in a crash course in rocket science.
Party workers had explained that Teodoro was trailing at the polls was because he had started his campaign late, confirmed by voter feedback in poll surveys. Teodoro started to scale up his advertising last month, dislodging Aquino and moving up behind Villar in spending, according to AGB Nielsen.
The Lakas-Kampi-CMD campaign was so slow in gaining momentum cracks had started to appear. Last week, two of the coalition?s six senatorial candidates, former Cabinet Secretary Silvestre Bello III and lawyer Raul Lambino, joined the public outcry for more funds.
Both Bello and Lambino are outside the winning circle of 12 senators, which includes reelectionist administration Senators Ramon Revilla Jr. and Lito Lapid, both popular movie stars. The two other coalition candidates, broadcaster Rey Langit and Mayor Ramon Guico of Binalonan, Pangasinan, are lagging behind also.
Why the ruling party should have only six candidates for senator has also sparked questions.
Most of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo?s Cabinet members are running for congressional seats, as she herself is in her home province of Pampanga. The public explanation was that it was safer for them to run for the House of Representatives than the Senate, considering Ms Arroyo?s unpopularity.
The more obvious reason is they are needed in the House to support her bid for Speaker, according to administration critics. But why would she want to be Speaker, when that would not save her from a slew of lawsuits awaiting her when she steps down from the presidency?
Being Speaker would only make sense if that would lead to Congress working on constitutional amendments to convert the presidential form of government to a parliamentary system, political pundits have speculated. This will give Ms Arroyo a way out of a constitutional ban on staying longer in power.
But constitutional amendments, whether proposed by Congress acting as a constituent assembly, or by a constitutional convention, will still need to be ratified in a plebiscite.
Crucial battles local
This is where control of the local governments becomes crucial, opposition candidates say.
This is probably also why the ruling coalition is conserving resources to support party candidates running for local positions.
Viewed in his light, critics say everything else becomes crystal clear:
? Why a major offensive on March 26, the start of local campaigning?
? Why only six senatorial candidates?
? Why the focus on congressional seats by former Cabinet members?
? Why the benign neglect of Manzano?
? Why even the turtle pace of Teodoro?s campaign, considering he was already late in getting started?
All of the above can be explained away by Manglapus? adroit political bullet-dodging??It?s a matter of allocating resources accordingly.?
It could also mean everything else is being sacrificed for the congressional and local government fights. Strategy is all about choosing the key battles which will win the war, party strategists say.
That depends on what the war is all about?the presidency or the speakership, or both.
But there is also some strategic logic in making sure that Teodoro does not ?peak too early,? going by conventional political wisdom. Party historians point to the following:
? After leading Arroyo by 9 to 10 percentage points in January 2004, Fernando Poe Jr.?s lead shrank to 1 to 2 points in February and March. Arroyo grabbed the lead by 4 points in mid-April and was pulling away by 7 the week before the elections.
? In 1992, Fidel Ramos led Miriam Defensor Santiago by 7 points in January-February, but the feisty senator caught up with him by March-April. Ramos led by only 1.3 points in the final poll a week before elections in a cliff-hanger of a battle.
By waiting for March 26 for a final push, chief party strategist Manglapus may have an ace hidden inside his sleeve. Or he will be wearing a broken heart out on his sleeve if they are making a mistake.
Military planners liken this strategy to the decisive ?Battle of the Bulge? in World War II, when the retreating Germans made a last-ditch effort to push back the Allied forces marching toward Germany.
It was a bold and defining counterattack. Had it succeeded, it would have been brilliant. Failing, it drained the fight out of the German forces. They did not expect Gen. George S. Patton?s brilliant countermaneuver.
Manglapus had better pray there are no more Pattons around. Or rival party strategists who saw the Oscar-winning movie.
(Editor?s Note: The author is chief executive of the Marbella International Business Consultancy. He is a veteran of numerous presidential, senatorial and congressional elections since 1967. Comments welcome at e-mail email@example.com.)