Malilong: Debate’s biggest loser

THOSE who watched last Sunday's presidential debate are divided on who won it. His supporters claim that it was Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte who scored the most points, judging by the applause that he received everytime he spoke. Others say that based on the ease with which she communicated her message, Sen. Grace Poe stood out over the rest. Still others gave the verdict to former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas for his clarity and consistency in presenting his answer to even the most provocative questions.

The judgment is, however, almost unanimous as to who emerged the biggest loser among the four participants.

Vice President Jejomar Binay must now be ruing the day he agreed to take part in the Comelec-sponsored activity and open himself up to the possibility of a thorough roasting by his presidential rivals. How could he have possibly missed the fact that a debate meant political enemies literally and figuratively tearing each other apart on a wide range of issues including his/her fitness to hold the presidency?

Until then, he has deftly and wisely avoided such a confrontation, backing out of a debate, which he himself proposed, with Sen. Antonio Trillanes and adamantly refusing to appear in the Senate to answer questions on alleged shenanigans in Makati when he was city mayor.

There was no reason for him to deviate from that route; he has been doing very well in the many pre-election surveys on voters' preference for president despite the allegations of corruption against him and his family.

Binay's line was simple: until he or any member of his family is convicted by the courts, the charges against them are just bare and unsubstantiated accusations.

That argument worked-- until last Sunday. Unlike in the first leg of the debates in Cagayan de Oro in which the candidates behaved like they were contesting for the title of Mr./Miss Congeniality instead of the presidency, all gloves were off moments after the debate opened after an almost two-hour delay.

Ironically, it was Binay himself who invited attention to the unanswered allegations against him by mentioning graft and corruption in his comments on the failure to pass a freedom of information law.

Are you willing to withdraw from the presidential race over corruption charges, Duterte asked him. After Binay mumbled a reply about only the courts having the power to convict him, Poe took the cue. She was relentless, sparking one of the fiercest exchanges in the debate.

At one point, a furious Binay asked Poe, how can you aspire to serve as president of the country that you abjured? Am I less capacitated, a visibly irritated Poe shot back, than the man who stayed behind and stole the people's money?

From then on, it was all downhill for Binay so that by the time Roxas asked the vice president to finally explain the corruption charges against him, the vice president's demeanor had completely unraveled. Roxas's question was carefully phrased; as he himself pointed out, he did not directly accuse Binay of wrongdong but only cited the Senate and Commission on Audit reports that claimed overpricing in Makati City purchases. It did not matter to Binay. He must have seen the question as the coup de grace in the night's orgy of Binay bashing and angrily blurted that Roxas was a disciple of Goebbels.

It's too early to write finis to Binay's candidacy. One debate debacle does not a lost campaign make. The man is resilient. At the height of the Senate investigation on corruption allegedly committed by him and his family, his popularity and approval ratings took a nosedive. But he quickly recovered from the setback, since then placing no lower than a tie for second in the presidential preference surveys.

Sunday wasn't a particularly good day for the vice president not just because of his performance in the debate. It turned out that while he was jawing with his political enemies, an important ally was deserting him.

One Cebu decided that they have had enough of being ignored by the United Nationalist Alliance in the campaign in the province and broke off with Binay's party. The Garcias are a huge loss to the UNA standard bearer but that's not the same as saying that he won't be able to recover.

If he does bounce back and goes on to win the presidency, he can laugh away his dismal performance last Sunday as a hiccup. If the unthinkable happens and he loses, we will all remember March 20, 2016 as the day his presidential ambition found a graveyard at the UP Cebu grounds.

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