What happened behind the scenes at the VP debate

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The six candidates onstage during the only official vice presidential face-off of PiliPinas Debates 2016. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Long before the vice presidential candidates took the stage, the beginnings of the debate already started elsewhere. In front of UST, a group of martial law victims rallied against Sen. Bongbong Marcos. Megaphones in hand, they preached of the crimes of Ferdinand Marcos and pleaded for passersby not to vote for his son. Marcos supporters, twice in number, would not be drowned out, though. For every chant of "Never again!", they answered back with "Bongbong!"

Elsewhere along España were many more supporters, clad in red, white, and yellow, and out in force. They lined the sidewalks, unable to get inside the university, but waiting nevertheless to cheer on their bets. Police estimate about 500 people were there.

Marcos protesters inside the debate venue. Photo by JL JAVIER

Meanwhile, high up in the fourth floor of the UST Quadricentennial Pavilion, the general admission section was quickly being filled up. Supporters riled against organizers about seat allocations. Why did this candidate get this area or that area? Soon, they were going against each other. Trillanes and Marcos, in particular, got into a shouting match and threatened to become physical. Security had to be called in.

"Para mong pinagtabi ang KathNiel and JaDine supporters," one organizer said, for lack of a better way to explain the tension. Tempers were beginning to flare and the candidates weren't even in the building yet.

A look at the crowd of supporters and guests at the debate venue. Photo by JL JAVIER

                                                                     It takes a village

The backstage filled up quickly as the candidates arrived, SUVs rolling onto the driveway one after the other. It takes a village to run a national campaign. And even with strict rules on the number of people candidates could bring to the debate, each skeletal team still had more than a dozen members, from strategists to analysts, from media relations officers to makeup artists.

It has been a long campaign for the candidates and their staff. In the last month, they have flown from one end of the country to another, campaigning in the biggest cities and the smallest provinces. And it promises to be a tight race until the end. In the latest Social Weather Stations survey, Marcos leads the polls with Sen. Chiz Escudero and Rep. Leni Robredo statistically tied at a close second. Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano sits at third place, while Sen. Gringo Honasan and Trillanes are tied at fourth.

Sen. Francis "Chiz" Escudero taking a photograph with his supporters. Photo by JL Javier

Unlike the presidentiables, however, who get three debates to face off against one another, the vice presidential hopefuls only get this one opportunity. A lot was clearly riding on this day and the pressure weighed heavily on everyone. An aide to Cayetano admitted, "Ako yung kinikilabutan." Escudero’s wife, the actress Heart Evangelista, also shook off her stress and joked to her companion, "I think I want to vomit."

Robredo had her children with her, but the absence of her late husband, the former cabinet secretary Jesse Robredo, was palpable. She chose not to mention his name or legacy at all during the debate, but before the event, she posted a photo of him on Facebook, saying, "I need your sanib please."

Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano outside his holding room at the UST Quadricentennial Pavilion. Photo by JL JAVIER

Perhaps the only person blissfully unaware of the gravity of the occasion was Cayetano's young nephew. Barely 10 minutes into the event, he interrupted his uncle's interview by tugging at his shirt, asking, "Can we go back to the car already?"

                                                          Brief, unguarded moments

It’s very rare to see a candidate alone. When they’re not mobbed by supporters, the candidates are hounded by the media. They're flanked by their team even when they go to the bathroom. When they’re onstage, they stand abreast, facing an audience of millions. It’s interesting to catch them at the brief moments they are unguarded, if only because such moments are so few and far between.

Camarines Sur 3rd District Rep. Maria Leonor "Leni" Robredo right before she went onstage. Photo by JL JAVIER

In the holding room where all the vice presidential candidates stayed right before the debate, Cayetano cut a lone figure even as his opponents all socialized with one another. And as he lined up to be called on stage, he puffed out his cheeks as he took long, deep breaths in preparation, almost like a fighter. True enough, he would go on to land several strong blows against Marcos and some of the other candidates that night.

In contrast, Honasan was loose, all smiles from the start. He had arrived at the venue early, even before the studio had been set up for the candidates’ portraits. He enjoyed a quiet, leisurely photo shoot before the chaos set in, laughing as he fumbled the photographer's directions on how to pose. A soldier during martial law, a leader of many a coup, he said after the shoot, "Ang hirap pala maging model, 'no?"

Sen. Gringo Honasan being interviewed for the pre-debate coverage. Photo by JL JAVIER

Meanwhile, when Marcos arrived, his hair in a side part, his arms raised flashing victory signs, he looked uncannily like his father. This is a man groomed to be in politics. Backstage, he met the staff, looked everyone in the eye, remembered their names and thanked them personally at the end of every interaction. At the podium, he often elicited the wildest cheers and the loudest boos, even an impromptu protest. Whatever the reaction, though, the reaction was about him, and he took it all in regardless.

                                                                     A smile and a punchline

Before the show, Escudero admitted he was nervous, but he was experienced enough as a lawyer to know that the nerves were a good sign. It kept him on his toes, he said.

Robredo was more forthright. This is her first national campaign and it gets overwhelming, she said. She feels more at ease knocking on the doors of her constituents in the third district of Camarines Sur, talking to them one on one. “Honestly, I just wish this debate was over already,” she said.

Sen. Antonio "Sonny" Trillanes IV moments before the start of the debate. Photo by JL JAVIER

Trillanes didn’t speak much. He is the sole candidate without a running mate for president, and he has had a shorter stint in public office than most of the rest. But he has faced greater odds before: Oakwood, Manila Peninsula, an election bid from a jail cell. He stood at attention the entire time, his face stern and stoic, barely giving anything away.

It is easy to forget, amid the theater of a nationally televised debate, that these candidates are just people, in the middle of a political circus. They run an exhaustive campaign and face intense pressure such as most people will never have to experience. They do it in the limelight and are expected to take everything in with a smile and a punchline. Escudero alluded to it briefly at the close of the debate: “Alam ko nakakaaliw kaming panoorin ngayon. Para kaming payaso sa isang circus.

Sen. Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. makes his entrance backstage. Photo by JL JAVIER

The platforms, the alliances, and the rivalries — they were all there for everyone to see. But in the end, this is still politics and politics is often a show. After all the zingers, Marcos sought out Cayetano after the debate and they shook hands. The candidates took turns, letting each one talk to the media before filing out. They may be running against each other, but they also acknowledge that they are all in this race together — a race that is fast becoming as closely watched and hotly contested as the race for the presidency