Bruising campaign comes to a head in presidential debate

Joel Guinto, ABS-CBN News

Supporters of various candidates struggle to get thru the thick crowd to get to the University of Pangasinan where they have tickets for the Pilipinas Debates 2016. Fernando G. Sepe, Jr., ABS-CBN News

MANILA - All five candidates will square off in the last presidential debate on Sunday two weeks before elections on May 9.

The Philippines looked poised to return to strongman-like rule 30 years after ousting the Marcos dictatorship with tough-talking Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte widening his lead over the erstwhile frontrunner, Sen. Grace Poe.

Reeling from the firestorm of criticism he stirred for joking about the rape of an Australian missionary, Duterte will fight to keep his lead and possibly cruise to victory, analysts said.

READ: Duterte boosts lead in new ABS-CBN survey

Poe's campaign has been saddled by doubts over her relative inexperience, having served only three years in elective office. She has also fought off criticisms over holding American citizenship and her residency qualifications.

Administration bet Manuel Roxas, who is burdened by the missteps of the current leadership, and Vice President Jejomar Binay, the opposition leader accused of corruption, will struggle to stay in the running.

Waging what could be the two biggest battles of her life, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago will fight for her share of votes in her third presidential run while combating lung cancer.

READ: PiliPinas Debates 2016: What to expect from the final face-off

"This is very much a Duterte-Poe race," De La Salle University political science professor Richard Javad Heydarian told ABS-CBN News.

"Poe is in a position to regain some momentum especially if she holds Duterte to account using a feminist card," Heydarian said, citing surveys which showed that Poe was the top "second choice" candidate by voters.

Duterte widened his lead over Poe to 12 points in the April 12 to 17 survey by ABS-CBN and Pulse Asia. Binay trailed Poe by three points, while only one point separated the vice president from Roxas.

"Binay and Mar are in a tough position, as Poe and Duterte pull away, so they hope their machinery will deliver," Heydarian said.

"The national zeitgeist is change, no matter how it turns out, and this grievance politics is turning into a protest vote against establishment candidates," he said.

BINAY, ROXAS STILL IN THE RUNNING

Although trailing Duterte and Poe, Binay and Roxas are not out of the running as they can tap their respective political machineries.

"This is still a close fight... You can't discount that Binay and Roxas have both the machinery and the resources," Institute for Political and Electoral Reform executive director Ramon Casiple told ABS-CBN News.

Binay can tap into the ground network that enabled him to pull off a come-from-behind victory against Roxas in the 2010 vice presidential race, the same network used by his daughter, Nancy Binay, to win a Senate seat in 2013, Casiple said.

To pull further away from Poe, Duterte needs to gather more support in Luzon to compliment his traditional bases in the Visayas and Mindanao, Casiple said.

Poe, on the other hand, needs to offer voters a concrete plan, like the mayor's promise to stamp out criminality in three to six months in order to catch up, he said.

"Poe needs to sharpen his messaging. She is promising that no one will be left behind. She needs to spell out how she will do this," he said.

PiliPinas, The Presidential Townhall debates hosted by ABS-CBN and the Manila Bulletin is the third and last in a series of face-offs of the five candidates, which was initiated by the Commission on Elections.

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