MANILA - Sweat trickled down former senator Mar Roxas' forehead as he shook hands with butchers and vendors in a dank public market in Mabalacat, Pampanga.
The Liberal Party's 2016 standard bearer has been going around wet and dry markets after a nearly 3-year political hiatus to reintroduce his "Mr. Palengke" (Market Man) image, one that catapulted him to the top of the 2004 senatorial elections, hoping the familiar moniker would help his bid for a political comeback after losing the presidency in 2016.
Clad in a blue shirt and well-pressed jeans, Roxas stuck to pleasant greetings and occasional pats on the back instead of carrying sacks of feeds or driving a pedicab -- two images used in his failed presidential bid that drew online bashing and memes.
The now senior citizen Roxas is staying away from traditional politics (trapo) and keeping his messaging "simple and genuine," his campaign manager Caloocan Rep. Edgar Erice told ABS-CBN News.
"Nadala na siguro talaga kami sa mga trapo-trapo moves so ito na lang. 'Pag ganun, matro-troll na naman na fake," Erice said.
(I think we learned our lesson from traditional politicking so we just stick to the basics. If we do those moves again, trolls will again say he's being fake.)
Roxas, scion of a past president and well-landed sugar barons, suffered an "image problem" in 2016 after his camp tried to package him as a man of the masses despite his affluent background and pedigree.
The Araneta Group heir, who also happens to be the son of former Sen. Gerardo Roxas and grandson of late president Manuel Roxas, is done with antics like trying to manage road traffic under the rain or trying to fix a school desk using a hammer, Erice said.
"Wala na ding celebrity endorsers. Ito 'yung strategy na simple lang talaga," Erice said, referring to the flak they got when Roxas starred in a 4-minute campaign music video where he swayed and acted alongside nearly 20 celebrities.
(We don't have celebrity endorsers anymore. Our strategy now is to keep it really simple.)
This time, Roxas switched gears and embraced his reality: He is an alumnus of the prestigious Wharton Business School in Pennsylvania and a former New York investment banker who helped Filipino fastfood chain Jollibee debut in the stock market.
He is no longer just "Mr. Palengke." He is now Mar Roxas the economist who can troubleshoot inflation woes that has crippled the daily budget of ordinary Filipinos.
"As I go around, it became clear to me that people's lives had not changed and that the core problem was really the economy. Kulang ang kita at suweldo versus the gastos," Roxas told ANC's Headstart when asked what prompted him to make a political comeback.
(People's earnings and income were not enough for their expenses.)
"My advocacy is simple: Everything that helps this [income] increase, I'm for that. Everything that helps [it] decrease, I am against it," he said.
Roxas' fresh strategy dubbed "Ekonomismo" - a portmanteau of the Filipino words "ekonomiya" and "mismo" that translates to "exact economics" in English - has been stripped of campaign frills.
Roxas sticks to explaining economic woes and how he plans to solve them. His campaign video featured not celebrities but vendors, fishermen and call center agents who he supposedly met while he was enjoying his break from politics.
The spotlight was placed on the common folk instead of the senatorial candidate who is trying to mount a resurgence after 2 consecutive national election losses.
The same tack is being applied to Roxas' ground activities to dispel the notion that he is an "elitist," said Francisco Joaquin III, Roxas' cousin who also works as one of his campaign volunteers.
"If you notice, Mar's campaign now is subtle. It's quiet. Hindi na piyesta (It's not festive anymore)," Joaquin said, referring to the small gatherings and town halls Roxas has been attending since the campaign period began in February.
Swapping lengthy sorties that seemed like variety shows for "intimate sessions" with ordinary voters echoed a 2015 suggestion raised by former Budget Secretary Florencio "Butch" Abad, the Liberal Party's campaign manager in 2010.
"I've seen him in a number of engagements and [after meeting him] people would say, 'Ano yung sinasabi nilang mayabang, mahirap lapitan, madistansya?'" Abad said.
(Whoever said that he was arrogant, unapproachable and distant?)
Roxas told reporters he would have to campaign "as hard as he can" in the last 30 days of the campaign period after his survey rankings dipped by 8.5 percentage points in the latest Pulse Asia senatorial preference survey.
While his voter awareness remained at 99 percent, Roxas is suffering from a steady decline of voter support, data from Pulse Asia showed.
The 61-year-old politician fell to the 11th to 16th bracket, after his voter support dropped to 31.9 percent in the survey conducted from March 23 to 27.
He had 39.8-percent voter support in February and 41.8 percent in January.
Roxas helped organize the now bustling call center industry when he worked as Trade secretary under the Estrada administration. He also pushed for the Cheaper Medicines Act in his first Senate term during the presidency of now House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
But the candidate's baggage stems from shortcomings of his more recent stint in the Aquino administration, political analyst Ramon Casiple said in a previous interview.
Former President Benigno Aquino III appointed Roxas as his Transportation and Communications chief at a time when the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) was plagued with maintenance issues and corruption scandals.
Roxas was eventually moved to head the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) after the untimely demise of late Secretary Jesse Robredo.
It was under his watch when the government was criticized by international media for its seemingly slow disaster and rehabilitation response days after Super Typhoon Yolanda devastated much of Eastern Visayas and left thousands dead or missing in 2013.
"The irony was these are the events that should have pushed him (Roxas) into convincing the public na kaya niya 'yung trabaho (that he can do the job)," Casiple said.
Just more than a year later, then suspended Philippine National Police chief Alan Purisima bypassed Roxas and mounted an anti-terror operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.
The botched mission left 44 elite troopers massacred due to lack of coordination with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and reinforcement from the military. It also derailed the passage of the then proposed Bangsamoro Organic Law.
Roxas mulled stepping down from Aquino's Cabinet but did not push through with his resignation.
"If he resigned, that would have been the better option," political analyst Edmund Tayao said.
"It would have shown a strong leader who doesn't compromise his leadership by personal relations and that he is only after what is right and that he is intent on making things right," he said.
Roxas, in a Facebook video posted in September 2018, admitted that he is "not perfect" and that "there were shortcomings" and "mistakes...made."
In succeeding interviews, the former transportation and interior secretary clarified that he was not liable for those blunders.
"There is no case [against me] because there is no basis. If people don't want to believe that, that's their business, but the fact is, that's the truth," he said.
Erice said Roxas was blamed for the past administration's shortcomings.
"Buhat niya lahat 'yung baggage ng nakaraan na hindi naman siya ang responsable dun sa ibang baggage na 'yun," he said.
(He has been carrying all the baggage of the past administration even if he was not responsible for some of those baggage.)
"To put it bluntly, a lot of people stabbed him in the back, spat in his face and kicked him," Joaquin said.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson also came to Roxas' defense, describing the Capizeño politician as President Rodrigo Duterte's "favorite punching bag."
Duterte and Roxas traded barbs in the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections. The Davao mayor prevailed over the Liberals' bet with a 6.62-million vote margin.
"Huwag naman ibato sa kaniya ang (He should not be blamed for) Yolanda funds because he never took advantage. There was no way for him to have that opportunity to take advantage," said Lacson, who was in charge of overseeing and reviewing government response efforts related to Super Typhoon Yolanda.
"Wala naman talaga siyang kinalaman sa pondo ng Yolanda except ang DILG nag-provide ng cash assistance sa LGU and dumaan sa kaniya," he said.
(He really had nothing to do with the Yolanda funds except that the DILG, which was under him, provided cash assistance to local government units.)
SENIOR CITIZEN MAR
Roxas seems to be unburdened by these past faults and failures.
Time away from politics helped the veteran politician be "more comfortable" and "at peace."
"Fortunately enough, he was able to step back to do more reflection and become more comfortable," Joaquin said.
"Mar has always been Mar. It's just that now, Mar is able to comfortably show who he really is," he said.
Unlike in 2016 when Roxas drew flak for frequently flying his team in private Cessna planes to cover more campaign areas, the sexagenarian senatorial aspirant admits to having a more laid-back campaign.
He was absent from the trail for some 20 days after he flew twice to the United States to welcome his newborn twins with his broadcaster wife, Korina Sanchez.
Fraternal twins "Pepe" and "Pilar" were born early this year via gestational surrogacy in the United States.
"Napakasarap talaga. Hindi talaga mabura sa labi ko 'yung mga ngiti dahil hindi nawawala sa isip ko si Pepe at si Pilar," Roxas earlier said.
(It feels really good. The smile on my face won't go away because Pepe and Pilar are always on my mind.)
"I am at peace. You cannot hurt me. Nobody can hurt me," he said.
Despite his "family first" mindset, Roxas continues to stride in other musty markets across the country armed with his usual smile and handshake to barrel through the campaign.
"Una nila akong nakilala bilang Mr. Palengke kaya babalik at babalik tayo sa palengke. Siguro ang pinagkaiba lang, senior citizen na ako so iba na ang perspektiba," he told reporters in a chance interview in Pampanga.
(They first knew me as Mr. Palengke so we would always go back to the market. Maybe the only difference now is that I'm a senior citizen so I have a different perspective.)
"Maybe I'm more accepting of life. I'm more able to roll with the punches," he said in another interview.
"When you are much younger, you think you can impose your will over the fates. That's the exuberance of youth: that you can make things happen, that you are impatient for things to happen," he said.
"But with age and defeat and having your knees scraped, you realize, not everything you can make happen," he added.
Roxas has nothing to lose, even if he fails his third straight election bid, Erice said. Before the 2016 presidential polls, Roxas also lost his bid for the Vice Presidency in 2010 to former Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay.
"Ano pa ba ang hahanapin sa buhay ni Mar? Pamilya, maayos na negosyo, maayos health niya. Personally, sa tingin ko, wala na siyang kailangan," he said.
(What more is missing from Mar's life? He has a family, a decent business, good health. I personally think he does not need anything else.)
Regardless of how Roxas fares in the upcoming polls, he should consider taking the path of a "kingmaker," Ateneo School of Government Dean Ronald Mendoza said, noting that the political veteran has the pedigree, the experience and the resources to back promising leaders.
"There are many, many good leaders out there, but they don't have the training that someone from a political family may have; who grows up as a child having breakfast with a father and a mother who are senators and congressmen and ex-presidents and ex-vice presidents," he said.
"I hope he becomes a kingmaker not just for families of kings and royalty, but for leaders who are really gonna come up in the pipeline from different sectors," he said.
"I think that is more inspiring because here, we have very few kingmakers because everybody wants to be king," the dean said.