Frontrunner Duterte 'unscathed' as rivals hold punches

Joel Guinto, ABS-CBN News

Presidential candidates Vice President Jejomar Binay, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, Sen. Grace Poe and former DILG Secretary Mar Roxas share the stage during the 3rd presidential debate "PiliPINASDebates2016" at the PHINMA University of Pangasinan in Dagupan City on Sunday. Jonathan Cellona., ABS-CBN News

Presidential race frontrunner Rodrigo Duterte was largely unscathed after his rivals tempered their attacks to focus on wooing more voters during their final face-off on Sunday before the May 9 elections, analysts said.

The 71-year-old Davao City mayor, who has promised a ruthless anti-crime campaign, widened his lead over his closest opponent, Sen. Grace Poe, to 12 points in the most recent ABS-CBN survey conducted by Pulse Asia, the widest margin so far in what started as a tight, four-way race.

READ: Duterte boosts lead in new ABS-CBN survey

"He was not mortally wounded. I think he is the winner," Manila Bulletin political columnist Leandro Coronel said after the over 3-hour-long "PiliPinas 2016: The Presidential Townhall Debate."

"I don't think he will lose his standing in the polls... He survived unscathed," he said.

Coronel said he had expected Duterte's rivals to pounce on the mayor's recent controversies, but this did not happen. 

Speaking on the pre-debate show on ANC, Coronel had predicted that Duterte would be able to fend off possible attacks from his rivals. 

"My feeling is he will just be himself; I think he can handle the controversy and I think he’s gonna be the usual Duterte. I don’t think he will shrink in fear against his opponents," he told Alvin Elchico in the pre-debate show on ANC.

Duterte's lead, he said, is "phenomenal" and is a product of "a lot of resonance out there from his message."

Coronel said "because crime is all around the communities, neighborhoods, people believe that [Duterte can suppress crime in six months] and they’re willing to gamble on Duterte."

"It tells us that we’re scared; tells us that we’ve had enough of what’s happening in our neighborhoods and our communities. Crime is all over; we’ve had enough. We want someone with an iron hand," he added.

Duterte stirred a firestorm of criticism last week after he joked about the rape of an Australian missionary at a Davao City prison in 1989. It was the latest in a string of controversial statements that included his cursing of Pope Francis.

Duterte jokes about raped Australian woman

Poe, administration candidate Mar Roxas, Vice President Jejomar Binay, and Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago appeared to have waited on each other to start criticizing the surprise frontrunner, University of the Philippines political science professor Prospero de Vera said.

"Pagka nasa media interview binabanatan nila. Pagka harapan, ayaw nila. Palagay ko, sa mga susunod na araw, doon sila bubuwelta, hindi sa debate na ito," de Vera told ABS-CBN News.

Coronel also commended Poe and Roxas for doing their homework and giving "very articulate, comprehensive" answers.

Meanwhile, he said he felt personally sorry for Defensor-Santiago because through her "very labored" statements, it became apparent to him that she is sick.

Binay, Coronel said, kept his "typical campaign speech," and he echoed a comment he heard that the Vice President sounded like he's speaking before a barangay.

MISSING FIREWORKS

Duterte took to the stage with brash statements, at one time vowing to ride a jet ski to plant the Philippine flag on a Chinese-held artificial island in the disputed South China Sea.

"Pag pinatay nila ako dun, bahala na kayo umiyak dito sa Pilipinas," said Duterte who wore jeans and a crumpled brown shirt.

Poe briefly quizzed Duterte on his views on women, asking him during the face-off segment why he thought women were the weaker sex. To which the mayor replied how women felt safe in Davao because a bikini ban meant they were at less risk for rape.

Duterte, who has admitted to having had several girlfriends, offered no apologies for kissing scantily clad women perched on his lap during campaign sorties.

"That is what I am," he said. 

Poe used the debate to address doubts about her inexperience, having served only three years in elected office.

"Sabi nila, bago daw ako. Totoo, pero ang problema natin ay hindi na bago. Ang problema natin ay ganun pa din. Walang masama sa bago. Ang gusto nga natin, ang kanin bagong saing," she said.

Roxas pitched for the continuity of economic reforms started by President Benigno Aquino as he took a swipe at Duterte's plans on how to deal with criminality and corruption.

"Ang krimen ay nilulutas sa batas, hindi dahas. Ang gulo, nilulutas sa pamamagitan ng kalye at kabuhayan, hindi sa pulbura," he said.

"We must stay the course because malago ang ating ekonomiya. This is what turned us from sick man of Asia to Asia’s bright star," he said.

During a heated exchange on healthcare funding, Duterte shut Roxas down, saying: "Bakit huli ka sa ratings?"

Duterte scorns Roxas: '...bakit huli ka sa ratings?'

Binay, who saw his once wide lead disappear as the campaign got into full swing, focused on his message of providing free health care and housing for the poor.

He vowed to replicate the popular policies that endeared his family to the masses of Makati, where they have held power for 3 decades. 

"Sa Binay administration, lahat ng pamilya makakakain ng tatlong beses isang araw. Wala nang kapalpakan, hindi na mangyayari ang analysis-paralysis. Ang aking kasamang mamumuno, may competence at integrity," he said.

Defensor-Santiago, appeared to gasp for air despite claiming that she was back to "normal" after taking an experimental drug for her lung cancer.

"I will never quit. I will never stop. I will never surrender," said Santiago, who wore a fiery red blouse.

Miriam tells youth: I will never fail you

UNPREDICTABLE RACE

Analysts interviewed by ABS-CBN News said the race was still a cliffhanger despite Duterte widening his lead.

"Three weeks is an eternity in Philippine politics. So much can still happen. The election is tight and still close. So many factors are at play so these are not yet the final numbers," UP political science professor Ranjit Rye said.

De La Salle University political science professor Richard Javad Heydarian said the race could go down to Duterte and Poe.

"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.

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. -- with reports from Trishia Billones, RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News

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