Candidate Credits 'Sex Appeal' for Poll Ranking : Philippines: Mother of two is No. 1 in most surveys. But she lacks organization and her rivals are outspending her in the presidential race

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Presidential candidate Miriam Defensor Santiago grinned mischievously as she explained to a crowded rally here why she has led virtually every public opinion poll for more than a year.

"The reason I am always No. 1 is my sex appeal," joked the 46-year-old mother of two. Her opponents, she said, "are just jealous of my legs."

Santiago may yet laugh last when Philippine voters go to the polls Monday to elect an entirely new government, from president down to town councilors. Although she has never before sought elected office and is being outspent and out-organized by her rivals, the fiery former Quezon City judge is a key contender to succeed Corazon Aquino, who is not running.

Defying all expectations, Santiago has become the Philippines' first real protest candidate, riding a rising tide of resentment at the graft and greed associated with traditional politicians. It hasn't hurt that the acid-tongued populist is the most charismatic and combative candidate in the increasingly bitter race against former Defense Secretary Fidel V. Ramos, business tycoon Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. and House Speaker Ramon Mitra Jr.

Her taunts and insults are legendary. In a TV interview last week, for example, she announced that she had reached the "considered conclusion that . . . many if not all of my presidential opponents are certifiable idiots."

"I challenge them all to a fistfight," she told the cheering crowd in this farming town, an hour east of Manila, at the Wednesday night rally. "I want to be known as Terminator 2."

As always, she promised to "eradicate" graft and corruption. As always, she didn't say how. Her supporters, who mob her like a rock star, don't seem to care. Nor do they apparently mind that she faces two criminal charges of corruption before the country's special anti-graft court. She has denied the charges, saying she is the victim of a smear campaign. Her fans agree.

"She is honest," said Ven Ison, 42, an engineer attending his first political rally. "She is brave. She is strong. I know she can straighten out the country."

Just how she would do so isn't clear. Her claim as the country's top "graft buster" stems from 18 highly charged months as head of the Commission on Immigration and Deportation, a small agency charged with chasing illegal immigrants. She later served briefly as secretary of agrarian reform, but was fired after a coup attempt in December, 1989, when newspapers reported that military rebels wanted to include her in the junta.

Santiago's appeal may yet prove to be hype as well. With no political machine to deliver voters to the polls or field poll watchers to check for cheating, her popularity may not translate into votes.

"We don't care about organization," said Ramon Magsaysay Jr., her running mate and son of a popular former president. "People will say, 'I like this lady,' and that's all that's important."

Few politicians apparently like Santiago, however. If elected, she would have few allies in a Congress she has repeatedly insulted. Many here fear that she would be unable to rule in what is at best a fractious political culture riven by military unrest, economic stagnation and appalling poverty.

"She's vintage demagogue," said Nelson Navarro, a political columnist. "She knows people are angry, and she gives them what they want. . . ."

Santiago only partly disagrees. "They call me a woman Hitler," she said in an interview. "It depends what they mean by this derogatory term. If they mean by that I will become a very strong president, I plead guilty."

In an attempt to derail Santiago's campaign, anonymous opponents early last month circulated a 10-page "white paper" of scandalous allegations, mostly intended to support rumors that she has a history of mental instability. Critics call her "Brenda," a word play on "brain-damaged," or worse.

The rumors gained substance from an unlikely source. In newspaper columns written in 1978 and 1985 and republished two weeks ago, Santiago wrote that she suffered a debilitating collapse every two years. Despite a "steady diet of tranquilizers," she wrote, she found relief only when a faith healer supposedly opened her neck with his finger, pulled out a two-inch blood clot, then closed the wound without leaving a trace.

In the interview, she described her ailment as migraine headaches caused by overwork. Political pollster Felipe Miranda said her supporters accept her explanation and aren't put off by her strange, shrill singsong voice.

"My explanation is, people look at politicians as a crazy breed anyway," he said. "They identify her as a quasi-religious figure who doesn't speak as a normal person. And like Joan of Arc, they accept that she is hearing voices. No one finds that surprising."

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