IT was reminiscent of an English extemporaneous speaking contest.

Within a set time, students must speak on a topic and nary a second should they go beyond.

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Except that, at last Friday’s forum at the Cebu International Convention Center, there instead were presidential candidates Noynoy Aquino, Erap Estrada, Richard Gordon, Gibo Teodoro, Manuel Villar, and Bro. Eddie Villanueva.

In a time-bound marathon, speed is the key; meaning, grasping the question, processing facts, organizing thoughts, and flab-less speaking. On this count won Teodoro, Gordon and Aquino….yes, to my ecstatic surprise, Aquino.

This man can talk flawlessly, whether English or Filipino. No wonder he wowed the Makati Business Club, earning seven applauses within, and a standing ovation at the end of, the presentation of his economic program.

Greatly disadvantaged was Estrada. Like his fellow candidates, he had 3 minutes to answer “Why should Cebuanos vote for me?”

His long pleasantries cost him 2 minutes and 54 seconds.

When he said “And now I must answer the question,” he had only 6 seconds to go. Naturally, the question was unanswered.

To encourage good preparation and solicit tight and comprehensive answers, five questions from the organizers were sent to the presidentiables two days before the forum, to ensure substantive answers in 3 minutes each.

A question on attracting more foreign investments caught Estrada sifting his notes, to the heckling delight of the audience. One can only hope that the camera’s panning to Estrada at this point was merely coincidental, not visually pejorative.

Prior to the forum, the candidates stayed in a holding room.

Here, parameters are usually set, some kind of verbal no-hit guidelines.

Yet, while Gordon spoke of his track record, particularly his Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority days, he also took digs at fellow candidates (“Don’t vote for people with the money, or the pedigree”), and “As the President, I will not harbor anyone convicted of corruption,” clearly alluding to Villar, Aquino and Estrada, respectively.

The harder the fact, the truer the friend that speaks it.

The truest of Estrada’s friends should tell him to abandon his journey back to Malacanang, or refuse similar forums of this nature.

I think that Erap shouldn’t have been president, that he deserved to be ousted, that pardoning him was a huge GMA blunder, and that he insults the Filipinos by running for the presidency again, despite his crimes.

On protecting the environment, he mentioned the Clean Air Act during his administration with “Nasa ulo na namin ‘yon.” Today, he is a source of amusement, even ridicule, this man who once held the highest office in the land.

And so, my heart went out to him last Friday. Asked how to address the systemic graft and corruption in the country, his answer “I’ve been there” and assurance of “not one of my Cabinet members will be corrupt” drew a helluva clapping and hooting.

Declared a has-been, he will surely confirm this in May. Where in the world are his true friends? Sad.