MANILA - Four presidential candidates gave strong performances at ANC's "Harapan: The Presidential Forum" on Wednesday, according to several political and media analysts.
Among the experts' favorites were Sen. Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino Jr., Sen. Richard "Dick" Gordon, former Defense Sec. Gilberto "Gibo" Teodoro Jr., and former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada.
Imaging expert Emily Abrera said Aquino, Teodoro, and Gordon made the most sense and "didn't waffle" when they answered questions on morality, as well as their views on political dynasties, population control, insurgency, and President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's bid for a congressional seat.
Abrera said the candidates also appeared cool and collected, probably because they had prepared well for the forum.
"Regardless of the quality of their responses, Noynoy, Gibo, Gordon, and even Estrada - as witty as his answers were-- directly answered the questions," said polling firm Pulse Asia President Ronald D. Holmes.
The forum, held a day after the deadline of filing for certificates of candidacy, was held in partnership with Manila Bulletin, the Philippine Star, the University of Santo Tomas, and the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV).
"Harapan" is part of a series of election-related forums and debates held by ABS-CBN in the run up to the 2010 polls. Other presidential candidates who joined the forum were Nicanor Perlas, JC de los Reyes, and Bro. Eddie Villanueva.
Many of the top-ranked candidates at the forum showed improved performances compared to their previous showings at forums or informal surveys.
Marites Vitug, managing director ABS-CBN's news website, abs-cbnNEWS.com, noted that Aquino was more composed than his prior appearances on live forums. "It's hard to rank, but... tonight was a good showing by Aquino and Teodoro and Gordon," she added.
Holmes said Teodoro was more specific about his plans for issues like the Ampatuan town massacre or how to dismantle political dynasties. "But that's part of the platform of any candidate. Some came better prepared than others," he said.
Based on an unscientific poll conducted by abs-cbnNEWS.com for the forum, Teodoro enjoyed a jump in voter preference based on perceived credibility.
Asked whom they thought sounded credible at the forum, 42% of 1,499 voters chose Aquino, followed closely by Teodoro at 37%, Villanueva at 9%, and Gordon at 8%. Aquino has dominated recent national surveys, while Teodoro ranked only 2% in voter preference.
The political analysts said viewers may have been excited by "fresh faces" in the presidential race, and impressed by Aquino, Teodoro, and Gordon's clear and concise speeches.
Atty. Howard Calleja of the PPCRV, however, cautioned voters not to base their preferences on good speech delivery or looks alone.
"You would see who is the best speaker [in this forum]. But is that what we really need for the presidency? In addition to delivering your message, I would also look at the track record of these candidates," he said.
Vitug saw some candidates waver on their stand on certain issues, while others remained consistent with theirs.
"On the issue of the RH Bill, Gibo and Noynoy backtracked. Teodoro flip-flopped because he said before that the state had a role in promoting reproductive health education in the country. Noynoy went a bit soft this time, although he said the state would promote responsible parenthood," she said.
She added that Teodoro and Aquino were specific about their plans for peace and order, while Gordon was "weak" when it came to security issues.
Estrada, Vitug said, made inconsistent statements on ridding the country of warlords.
Though Estrada pledged at the forum that he would not tolerate warlords in the area, he had tried to secure supplemental budgets for civilian auxiliary units for the military--the same units used by warlords for their private armies--during his presidency.
Vitug said that Teodoro has been consistent on his stance to defeat political dynasties by strengthening political parties. Aquino was not so direct with his answer, but had signed the committee report on the Anti-Political Dynasty Act.
"Maybe in that way, they're consistent, but Noynoy was less [so] on the dynasty issue," Vitug said.
With character questions, she said, all the presidential candidates "came out as saints." Estrada, a reported womanizer and gambler, was asked about his vices and replied that his only vice was "to serve the poor."
Aquino, meanwhile, was asked whether he had ever been dishonest. The senator answered that he had lied to his parents about what time he would be coming home, among other "white lies."
Vitug also pointed out that many of the candidates had shifted political parties or alliances throughout their career. Teodoro left the Nationalist People's Coalition (NPC) and joined the Lakas-Kampi-CMD party in July.
Estrada had run under various parties including the Grand Alliance for Democracy, and now the Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino.
Gordon, meanwhile, was with the administration coalition in 2004, but is now running under Bagumbayan with former MMDA chairman Bayani Fernando as his running mate.
Candidates who were consistent with their party affiliations so far are Aquino (who has been a member of the Liberal Party since he ran in 1998), de los Reyes (Ang Kapatiran), and Villanueva (Bangon Pilipinas).
Holmes, however, said political affiliation registers low with voters when they consider whom to vote for. "I suppose it also depends on the nature of the change [in party affiliation]. Some opposition candidates who joined the administration after the 2007 elections, well, their careers suffered," he said.
A recent Pulse Asia survey showed that 21% of voters look for integrity ("hindi kurakot" or not corrupt) followed by 14% who said they wanted a president who has experience or is capable of accomplishing things ("may nagawa na o may magagawa").
Holmes said it was the first time that a presidential candidate's character ranked first in election surveys, superseding qualities like "helpfulness" and "track record" in their May and August 2009 surveys.
He added that these qualities that voters look for often reflect the themes posed by presidential candidates in their infomercials.
'No-shows lose chance to swing votes'
Notably absent from the forum was Sen. Manuel "Manny" Villar Jr., who has been ranking 2nd in recent election surveys.
Villar canceled a few hours before the forum started, reportedly saying he had an important business meeting.
Speculations surfaced that Villar was playing safe, after he refused to attend several election-related forums this year. Critics noted he was following the adage, "No talk, no mistake."
"For the audiences of the debate, [his absence] would not have influenced them for or against him," Holmes said. "If Villar did a good showing tonight, he would have gotten a good percentage [of votes]."
Abrera said Villar "missed an opportunity to project himself" and gave two opponents a chance to project themselves better. Vitug agreed, saying she would have wanted to "get to know Villar more."
According to an October 2009 survey by Pulse Asia, only 4% of Filipino voters are still undecided about whom to vote for in May 2010.
Of the 96% who stated that they already have a preferred candidate, more than half (54%) said there is little or no possibility that they will change their mind between October this year and election day next year, Holmes said.
The survey found that 20% of respondents said there is a "big possibility" they will change their vote, while 26% could not say whether they will or will not change their vote.
The top reasons given by voters for a change in voting preference are: if their candidate backs out from the race, and if another candidate puts forward a better program or platform. Sixty eight percent of voters also said the media will influence their voting preference.
"[The debate] was an opportunity to present their stance on many issues. I am sure their decisions will be influenced by these TV debates," Holmes added.
Though forums like ANC's "Harapan" may help voters decide on who to vote for, Calleja insisted it is still up to voters to decide whether they will be swayed by what they see on television.