Grace Poe: The almost nearly president

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Facing loss after months spent leading the polls with a seemingly airtight, if relatively quiet, campaign that was not without controversy, Grace Poe stands by her choices and continues to defy expectation. Portraits by JAKE VERZOSA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — We meet Grace Poe on her day of reckoning.

It’s May 6, three days before the presidential elections. She sits at second place in the surveys, with Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte far ahead, and former Secretary Manuel Roxas II snapping at her heels.

People, including Poe herself, are getting jittery about the prospect of a Duterte presidency. All this talk of revolutionary governments, shoot-to-kill orders, fish in the Manila Bay growing fat from the bodies that will be thrown in it. Commanding 33 percent of the vote just days before election day, Duterte seems  well on his way to Malacañang.

Say it softly, but isn’t it time everyone banded together to take down the frontrunner?

Poe and Roxas each have a little more than 20 percent of the vote. Vice President Jejomar Binay accounts for about 17 percent. These are all sizeable support bases, but taken alone, no one comes close to Duterte. Taken together, however?

Poe shoots it down in a heartbeat. “Absolutely not,” she says in her one-on-one with Pinky Webb, CNN Philippines senior anchor and correspondent. “Everybody is so invested in this already. You have no more face to show if you do that.”

She takes umbrage, in particular, that Roxas seems to be implying the fight is now between him and the mayor, that the others should now make way for him.“The audacity of some people,” she says, shaking her head.

Roxas, usually at third or fourth place, has had a resurgence to overtake Poe, yes. But only in the last Pulse Asia survey, she points out. And given the margin of error, they are still statistically tied. “Kino-correct ko lang …” She speaks with a smile and tone so soft that you almost don't realize her words are cutting. “Kasi naman baka maniwala kayo sa sarili ninyong publicity.”

Grace Poe in Aurora Grace Poe at a campaign sortie in Aurora, Quezon.

We would later find out from President Benigno Aquino III that just the night before, he had already approached Poe about forming a unity campaign against Duterte. Aquino admits they had a “little text exchange,” but it “wasn't conclusive” yet.

There is, however, nothing inconclusive about it now. Poe’s rejection is outright.

She gets another chance to reconsider the offer. Roxas makes the plea public later that afternoon. In a hastily organized press conference, he addresses her directly as he looks into the cameras. “I call on Senator Poe: Grace, mag-usap tayo.”

There are different accounts of what happens after. Poe says she’s open to talks, as long as she isn’t asked to withdraw her candidacy; Roxas makes no mention of that in his speech. But some say it was understood he expected to be the unity candidate.

What goes on in the backroom of politics, we don’t ever really find out. But what we do know is this: The unity campaign never materialized, Duterte went on to win, and Poe lost, taking third place behind Roxas.

Middling strategy

Two months ago, no one would have believed you if you said this would happen — that Poe would not only lose but also fall as far back as she did in the presidential race.

She was a force to be reckoned with even before she started. As early as June 2015, she was already leading the other presidential candidates in the initial surveys. Binay was the frontrunner at the beginning of the year, but Poe climbed steadily with every week, until she topped the polls in March.

At her peak, she accounted for 35 percent of votes in the Social Weather Stations mobile survey. But then she slipped to 34 percent one week, and then dropped down to 23 percent the next. She stayed in the low-20s range all the way until election day.

Poe’s camp suddenly seemed quiet in comparison. Members of her staff say they intentionally avoided negative campaigning, focusing only on promoting their platform instead of taking down other candidates.

 

To be fair, Poe was not the only one who squandered her lead. Binay was the frontrunner in January but ended up practically a bit-part player in the end. He was constantly dogged by corruption scandals and never recovered.

Poe also had her own controversies. There were doubts on whether she had the right to run as a foundling, and whether she satisfied the residency requirements after living in the U.S. for most of her adult life.

The difference was, Binay couldn’t answer the allegations made against him. Poe did. And the Supreme Court ruled in her favor. With a month to go until election day, high off her court victory, she made off with a sizeable lead over her rivals. And yet the election was Poe’s to lose.

Duterte and Roxas intensified their campaigning, eager to make up lost ground. They went on the attack — often against each other. Their supporters were all over social media, sharing their personal experiences working in government or living in Davao, trading highbrow political analyses and insults below the belt.

Poe’s camp suddenly seemed quiet in comparison. Members of her staff say they intentionally avoided negative campaigning, focusing only on promoting their platform instead of taking down other candidates. It’s been characteristic of the way they’ve run their entire campaign. Poe often emerged as the most diplomatic candidate, the middle ground between those defending the government to the death and those rioting to take it down. Her platform was a hulking 20-point agenda, although it built on current programs of the government or echoed proposals of many candidates past.

Grace Poe Miting de Avance Grace Poe's meeting de avance at Plaza Miranda in Manila.

It was also noticeable in how Poe approached controversial issues with caution, like the death penalty and the burial of Ferdinand Marcos in Libingan ng mga Bayani. She didn’t oppose or support them outright. She would say she was open to them or she would study them first.

Poe, the former debater, was caught out in the second presidential debate — by none other than the supposedly ineloquent, jokey Duterte. The mayor was on-point when he asked Poe what she would do if she was woken up in the middle of the night and told China had attacked our disputed territories. Poe ended up giving a lengthy speech about building military capacity and fostering cooperation within Southeast Asia. All well and good, Duterte said. But, Madame Senator, what would you do if you were woken up in the middle of the night and told China had attacked our disputed territories?

Many saw it as an indictment of Poe’s inexperience, with only three years as senator and two years as a media regulator. But it was also a question of Poe’s ability to make hard decisions. Leaders will have a variety of options when they have time to consider them. But when they don’t have that luxury, they must be able to say yes or no.

Poe’s middling strategy is not without upside. She has not had a misstep or said anything out of turn. She has not made any enemies. Surveys show that the supporters of the other candidates all pick her as their second choice if their own bet doesn’t win.

If this were a senatorial race, she would come out on top yet again. But this isn’t. Only one person gets to be president.

Commitment to independence

During the interview, Poe is asked: Do you regret not running under the banner of the Liberal Party (LP)?

The unity talks weren’t the first time she rejected Aquino or Roxas’s offers. She was approached in 2010 to run as an LP senator, but she declined since Aquino was running against Joseph Estrada, her father’s best friend. In 2013, she turned down LP again, appearing as a guest candidate on its senatorial slate but ultimately identifying herself as an independent. Aquino approached her yet again for this election, this time inviting her to be LP’s vice-presidential candidate alongside Roxas.

Grace Poe in Nueva Ecija Grace Poe campaigning in Nueva Ecija.

Any budding politician would throw open the door if the ruling party came knocking. Poe has turned them away each and every time. She says this government has had too many failures: the Mamasapano massacre, the constant breakdown of trains, the deeply entrenched poverty for majority of Filipinos. These are failures she cannot defend.

In a world of wheeling and dealing, it is refreshing to see Poe’s commitment to her independence — or her sheer belief that she can go it alone.

She’s defied many expectations before. Even though she turned down Aquino in 2010, the president still granted Poe her first government role, heading the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board for two straight terms. In 2013, even with no legislative experience under her belt, parties clamored to be affiliated with her. She was a guest candidate not just of LP, but also of its fierce rival, the United Nationalist Alliance. She ended up topping the senatorial race, beating more experienced lawmakers and amassing more than 20 million votes despite a limited campaign budget. And despite a thin résumé, she has kept pace with her fellow senators, notably holding her own when she chaired the inquiry into the botched Mamasapano operations.

Poe’s political decisions may not have paid off this round, but it’s a rare loss in a political career that has so far moved from strength to strength. Besides, in the game of politics, where billions of pesos are gambled and reputations are put on the line, no decision is taken lightly.

Maybe it only seems as though Poe had miscalculated her actions if we look at it from the lens of this election. She is young, with many years ahead of her in politics. Nonetheless, she has already shored up even more goodwill from her opponents by being the first to concede the presidential race to Duterte, just hours after the polls closed.

She returns to Senate after this loss, with another three years left in her term. It’s unlikely that this will be the last we see of her on the national stage.

Poe may have lost this battle, but the war has only started.

***

Watch the full interview below:

 

Grace Poe interview