Macapagal-De Castro election team-up looms

By Carlito Pablo, Christine O. Avendaño and Michael Lim Ubac

MALACAÑANG is pushing for a team-up of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo with Senator Noli de Castro for the presidential election in May, a top congressional leader said Tuesday night.

"It's moving very strongly in that direction," the congressional leader said. "It's the overwhelming sentiment of the advisers and (internal) pollsters of the Palace."

The Inquirer source added that he would have to admit, "It's the winning team."

President Macapagal-Arroyo said Tuesday night that she had yet to talk to De Castro, a popular TV and radio broadcaster. "We haven't talked about anything yet. I am not talking politics at this time," she told the Inquirer.

A "dream team," is how House Majority Floor Leader Neptali Gonzales II described a Macapagal-De Castro team-up was a dream team. "It can go against all flags," he said.

Leaders of the ruling party Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats have raised a question on whether De Castro's popularity can rub off on Ms Macapagal-Arroyo.

An official of the House of Representatives said President Macapagal-Arroyo "also wants Noli but we want to isolate her from having to defend that choice."

Congressional leaders want Senator Robert Barbers to be Ms Macapagal-Arroyo's running mate to maintain a "north-south balance," the House official said. Barbers is from Mindanao and the President is from Luzon.

"A long shot for the vice presidency being considered is FPJ," said the House official, referring to movie actor Fernando Poe Jr.

The administration ticket may face Poe, who is said to be making himself available as a presidential candidate of a united opposition, according to a reliable source in the opposition circle.

Senator Edgardo Angara told reporters Tuesday that Poe had informed Senator Panfilo Lacson when the two met on Nov. 14 that the Poe would running for election and was submitting himself to the selection process of a united opposition.

When contacted by the Inquirer, Lacson said Angara, president of the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP) party, had no basis to make such claim.

Lacson has declared that he will run for president in May.

Besides Lacson, former senator Raul Roco is also seeking the presidency.

A stalwart of the Lakas-CMD said that talks on a Macapagal-De Castro tandem were "already at mid-passage."

"It's a strong team-up that can take on all challengers," the Lakas-CMD official said on condition that he not be named.

Another administration source placed the odds of Ms Macapagal-Arroyo picking De Castro at more than 50 percent. "It's 70-percent go," he said, qualifying that this was his "personal assessment."

He said Ms Macapagal-Arroyo herself was on top of efforts to enlist De Castro, who has been topping surveys for both the presidential and vice presidential posts.

The talk in political circles is that after attempts failed to have Roco slide down as the vice presidential candidate of Ms Macapagal-Arroyo, De Castro has been considered as her running mate.

An internal Malacañang survey conducted two weeks ago reportedly found that if De Castro were to run for president, he would get 32 percent of the votes. The survey also purportedly indicated that Roco came in second with 20 percent, and Ms Macapagal-Arroyo, 19 percent.

It is widely accepted that a De Castro presence in the administration ticket can blunt the vote-getting potential of possible opposition tandems like a team-up of Poe with Senate Majority Floor Leader Loren Legarda, also a popular TV personality.

Legarda hinted that a Macapagal-De Castro team-up was in the works, with the powerful Lopez business empire -- which includes top TV and radio network ABS-CBN Broadcasting -- allegedly supporting the ticket. "There are talks, just like there are talks for every possible tandem," said Legarda, who is planning to run for the vice presidency.

Asked whether it was the idea of the Lopez family or the President's political strategists, Legarda said: "I'm not privy to any information." But with a smile, she quickly added: "Anything is possible yet."

Legarda, who established a name as a broadcast journalist of ABS-CBN before she became senator, resigned from the Lakas-CMD early last month. A Lakas-CMD stalwart said then that Loren might have felt that she could not be the running mate of Ms Macapagal-Arroyo because both are women.

De Castro, an ABS-CBN broadcaster himself, tried to play coy, but refused to rule out the possibility of his teaming up with Ms Macapagal-Arroyo for next year's elections.

He said anything was possible at this point, adding that he received such an "offer" from the President's men.

"Everybody is backing me," said De Castro when asked whether the Lopez family was behind the team-up.

He said he had been in constant communication with ABS-CBN chairperson Eugenio Lopez III, but the latter neither broached the idea nor urged him to agree to the team-up with Ms Macapagal-Arroyo. "We only talk about broadcasting ... how to improve the ratings," he said.

Senator Francis Pangilinan, a member of the so-called "Wednesday Group" of Senators, was surprised when told about the Macapagal-De Castro team-up.

"There is no information that would suggest that [story] to be taking place," he said. "As far as we are concerned, Senator De Castro has not mentioned any arrangement or talks with Malacañang. And I like to think that if such happens, we would know" as members of the Wednesday Group.

Pangilinan said De Castro had not yet even made up his mind on whether to join the presidential election. "Nothing definite. Even that is still in the air."

Besides De Castro and Pangilinan, the members of the Wednesday Group are Senators Joker Arroyo, Manuel Villar and Ralph Recto. All five are members of the administration coalition in the Senate, yet they have been critical of some of the President's policies.

LACSON said he continued to "respect" what he and Poe had agreed on, as he refused to say what they had talked about in Poe's residence in the Greenhills subdivision in Manila’s San Juan suburb last week.

A source in the opposition claimed that Poe had told Lacson that he would remain a reluctant candidate in spite of his expected declaration to make himself available as a candidate of the opposition.

On Monday, Lacson confirmed to the Inquirer his meeting with Poe, which came as a result of Lacson's invitation for a dialogue last month with the popular actor.

Poe, who is being convinced by some LDP leaders to run for the presidency, has yet to declare his plans for 2004.

Senate Minority Floor Leader Vicente Sotto III said he met Poe on Monday night during, which it was agreed that Poe himself would announce whether he would join the opposition's search for a standard bearer.

Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr. meanwhile asked the Senate Tuesday to pass a law declaring an elected public official immediately resigned from office when he or she runs for an elective office.

In Senate Resolution No. 2705, Pimentel said his proposal would "end political adventurism."


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