Closely fought Philippine presidential race gets underway

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Philippine presidential candidates launched their campaigns Tuesday in festive showbiz-style rallies to draw in the crowds in what is emerging as a closely fought contest to lead one of Asia's most unwieldy democracies.

From Manila's slums to the countryside, the candidates competed to captivate the Filipino everyman at the start of the 3-month campaign leading to the May 9 vote. They promised to cure the same ailments that have hounded the Southeast Asian nation for decades: widespread poverty, corruption, crime and insurgencies.

President Benigno Aquino III's single six-year term ends in June.

Three decades since the Southeast Asian nation of more than 100 million people emerged from dictatorship with the 1986 "people power" revolt, the economy has grown steadily under Aquino, who rose to power on a promise to battle corruption and poverty.

His predecessor was detained on an election fraud charge and three prominent senators were detained on corruption charges under Aquino's anti-graft fight. Aquino says his term has turned around the drift and hopelessness that preceded his presidency.

Rallies on Tuesday featuring singers, dancers and celebrities helped many of the candidates draw the public's attention to how they would deal with the country's longstanding social ills.

Most sniped at their rivals in lengthy speeches.

"It's like a fiesta, beauty contest, sitcom and drama all rolled into one," political analyst Ramon Casiple said. "And of course politics here is like a boxing match."

The leading contenders are seen as Sen. Grace Poe, the adopted daughter of a popular movie couple, and Vice President Jejomar Binay, followed by former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, who has been endorsed by the president. Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, known for his tough anti-crime campaign in southern Davao city, and Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago are also among the candidates.