MANILA, Philippines – A U.S.-educated investment banker and the richest Philippine presidential aspirant, Mar Roxas lacks the dramatic life stories of his rivals, including a tough-talking mayor with a public vow to dump criminals in Manila Bay and a foundling who made it big in politics.
The scion of one of the most well-known local political clans, however, is banking on his clean image in a Southeast Asian country where two presidents have been forced out by "people power" revolts over corruption allegations. A third remains in detention on corruption charges.
President Benigno Aquino III, who rose to power on a promise to fight corruption and poverty in 2010, has endorsed Roxas's candidacy. The 58-year-old economist has pledged to continue Aquino's "straight path" style of governance, a slogan praised by followers but mocked by political opponents.
Declaring Monday's presidential elections as a referendum on his "straight path" legacy, Aquino has appeared as much a candidate as Roxas as they wooed voters on the campaign trail.
"The past six years have been full of its challenges but it's clear that this is the farthest we have gone as a nation," Roxas said last month, adding that other nations have recognized the upswing. "The corrupt have been held to account. The economy has grown and millions of our people can now reach their dreams.
"This is known by countries which in the past have regarded us as the sick man of Asia but now call us Asia's bright star."
While Roxas has highlighted how the Philippines has turned around with one of the fastest growth rates in Asia and made other gains under Aquino, whom he served in two Cabinet posts, rival candidates have depicted the government as bungling and producing economic gains mainly for political elites.
About a fourth of the more than 100 million Filipinos remain mired in poverty. Foreign debt repayments and budget constraints hobble infrastructure and public services. Under those conditions, the government has had to constantly deal with social restiveness. Rival candidates pound on the Filipino everyman's daily travails — from crime to malfunctioning commuter trains to slow Internet service to one of the highest income taxes in Asia.
Opponents accuse the government of mishandling crises including the massive deaths and destruction wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Roxas, who was holed up in a hotel with the country's defense chief as Haiyan flattened entire villages in central Tacloban city, was blamed along with Aquino for the slow response in the aftermath of the most ferocious typhoon on record to hit land.
Town governments and disaster-response forces, Roxas said, were literally swept away by tsunami-like tidal surges, holding back emergency response in the first few days. The government sought international help led by the United States to deal with the deaths and devastation.
Among five presidential aspirants, Roxas is officially the richest, disclosing a net worth of more than 200 million pesos ($4.2 million) in 2014. His family owns a shopping mall complex and one of the country's most famous sports coliseums, site of the "Thrilla in Manila," the epic 1975 heavyweight bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
A son of a senator and grandson of Philippine President Manuel Acuna Roxas, who served from 1946 to 1948, the bespectacled Roxas was thrust into politics unexpectedly. After graduating from the Wharton School of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1979, he worked as an investment banker for some years in New York but suddenly returned home in 1993 to be with an ailing younger brother, a congressman who later died of cancer.
Roxas ran in special elections and won his brother's congressional seat. He easily won a Senate seat in 2004 and has served in the Cabinet under three presidents, including Aquino.
As trade secretary, Roxas has been credited with promoting the country in early 2000 as a base for international call center and business outsourcing services; that industry is expected to employ 1.3 million Filipinos and produce earnings of $25 billion this year. In the Senate, he worked for legislation that brought down medicine prices and another that exempted minimum-wage workers from income tax.
Widely expected to make a presidential run in 2010, Roxas gave way to Aquino, then a senator. There was a clamor for Aquino to run after his mother, democracy icon Corazon Aquino, died of cancer in 2009.
Roxas was criticized by opponents after he was photographed awkwardly carrying sackloads of onion and rice husk and pedaling a poor man's rickshaw in an impoverished community, in an apparent effort to endear himself to the lower classes. In an ice-making plant, he was photographed lying on a huge block of ice in what he would later say was a harmless act that was done in a light moment during a trip but was exploited by his bashers.
His rivals' colorful backgrounds have gotten more attention in a country where many often focus more on personalities than policy.
They include Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, a Harley-Davidson-riding mayor who has been nicknamed Duterte Harry for his tough talk on battling crime in southern Davao city, and Sen. Grace Poe, who was abandoned in a church as a baby before inheriting the celebrity name of her adoptive movie-star parents. Vice President Jejomar Binay, a former human rights lawyer, has stayed formidable despite allegations of corruption against him.
The latest pre-poll survey has put Duterte ahead of the pack, followed by Roxas, whose ratings have steadily improved in recent weeks as criticism of his rivals has grown.
"They say that I didn't grow up in poverty and I don't have a dramatic story, but the elections isn't about me. It's about you and your family," Roxas said in a TV ad.
"I'll continue with the 'straight path.' If there's anything lacking, I'll fill the gaps. If there's anything more that's wrong, I'll correct it. Most of all, I won't steal your money."