Why Bongbong Marcos chose to campaign in Pangasinan instead of joining the CNNPH debate

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Bayambang, Pangasinan (CNN Philippines, March 1) — Until the last minute before the CNN Philippines Presidential Debate began late afternoon on Sunday, a seat and a podium were reserved for Bongbong Marcos on stage at the University of Santo Tomas Quadricentennial Pavilion multi-purpose gym in Manila.

Though his camp said he would not be able to attend due to a "conflict in schedule," the production team chose not to remove his place on the stage.

After all, as political analysts say, anything can happen in Philippine politics, and he might just show up right before the debate began at 5 p.m.

Well, it didn't happen.

At the time the debate was starting, he was delivering his memorized campaign speech before supporters at the Speaker Eugenio Perez Gymnasium in San Carlos City, a three-hour drive north of Manila.

San Carlos City is the most populous city in the Ilocos region, the center of the so-called Solid North of the Marcoses, which has given them the strongest electoral support whenever a family member joins the national elections.

After staying for about 30 minutes, Marcos was immediately ferried by helicopter to the Saint Vincent Ferrer Prayer Park in Bayambang town for his last campaign rally for the weekend.

It was organized by Bayambang Mayor Cezar Quiambao, his billionaire ally and convenor of the province-wide alliance supporting the tandem of Marcos and vice presidential bet Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte.

At this point, it seemed that Marcos really had no plans of attending the debate in Manila.

On stage, he was welcomed by a rousing introduction by the host, a standing ovation by his senatoriables, and supporters all chanting "BBM."

Senatorial bet and former presidential spokesperson Harry Roque even invited Marcos to dance with him on stage.

Another senatoriable, SAGIP Party-list Representative Dante Marcoleta defended Marcos' refusal to attend some debates.

"Kamukha po ngayon, may mga nagsasabi, kasi ayaw ni Apo Bongbong makipag-debate pa. Hinahamon siya ng debate. Akala mo naman itong mga humahamon na ito eh magagaling sa debate? Akala mo naman mananalo sila sa debate?" Marcoleta said.

[Translation: Just like now, some are saying, Bongbong doesn't want to join debates. They're challenging him to a debate. Do they think they are good at debating? Do they think they can win the debate?]

Atty. Vic Rodriguez, the presidential frontrunner’s chief of staff, said they are not keen on joining debates, which would pit him with other candidates.

He said Marcos prefers one-on-one interviews, where he can elaborate more on his plans and platform.

'Conflict of schedule'

In the case of the debate on Sunday, however, Rodriguez said his boss’ long overdue visit to Pangasinan prevented him from joining the program.

He explained the sorties were supposed to take place as early as Jan. 11, but were postponed due to the surge in COVID-19 Omicron variant cases in Metro Manila.

The Marcos camp earlier claimed that 69 of their staff tested positive for COVID-19, prompting them to temporarily close their headquarters in Mandaluyong City for thorough disinfection.

"Ito 'yung mga schedules na hinahabol namin [These were the schedules that we're trying to catch up to] that's why were essentially several weeks behind schedule. But slowly, slowly we're picking up," Rodriguez, also Marcos' spokesperson, told journalists in an ambush interview in Bayambang on Sunday.

Critics and some netizens have been calling out Marcos for his refusal to participate in debates, saying he can find a way to join if he really wanted to.

During Saturday’s CNN Philippines Vice Presidential Debate, candidate Walden Bello didn't mince words when he blasted Marcos and Mayor Duterte, who also begged off for undisclosed reasons.

"I'm really terribly sorry that Mayor Duterte is not here to face the people. She is a coward just like Bongbong Marcos is a f***ing coward," he said.

READ: Bello causes stir, riles fellow VP bets in CNNPH debate 

Presidential candidates who attended the debate said the public deserves to know their plans should they clinch the coveted post.

"Dapat nandito 'yung isang kasama namin, bakit hindi pumunta dito?" labor leader Leody de Guzman said. "Importante ito para malaman sana at masabi kung ano 'yung mga programa, para malaman ng bansa, ng ating mga botante, kung ano 'yung plataporma."

[Translation: Our fellow candidate should be here, why did he not come? This is important so the country, the voters can know more about the programs and platforms.]

"Gusto mo naman ba mag-hire ng isang empleyado na hindi mo nakausap, hindi mo nakita, hindi mo nalaman kung anong karanasan?" Manila Mayor Isko Moreno rhetorically asked.

[Translation: Do you want to hire an employee whom you haven't talked to, you haven't met, you don't know the experience?]

READ: Presidential bets highlight importance of attending debates 

Roque reiterated the Marcos camp's reason for skipping the debate.

"Matagal na po itong naka-schedule, at napakahirap na po i-cancel what could be our biggest rally in Pangasinan because of conflict of schedule," Roque said in another interview.

[Translation: This has long been scheduled, and it's really hard to cancel what could be our biggest rally in Pangasinan because of conflict of schedule.]

'Vote-rich'

Marcos spent the entire weekend blitzing through more or less 20 Pangasinan towns, the most number he has visited in one province before and during this campaign period.

Rodriguez described it as a "killer schedule" and that two days weren't even enough.

Marcos’ local politician supporters hosted two-hour campaign rallies in Alaminos City, Dagupan City, Binalonan, Rosales, Malasiqui, and Bayambang.

In between the rallies, they also held caravans to greet more supporters waiting on roadsides across Pangasinan.

Atty. Rodriguez admitted they were behind their own campaign schedule most of the time, that's why they were not able to visit a number of towns initially on their list.

With more than two million registered voters for the 2022 elections, Pangasinan is the third most vote-rich province in the country -- and the most in the Ilocos region.

In the 2016 vice presidential race, Marcos won handily in the province over eventual national winner, Vice President Leni Robredo.

Pangasinan gubernatorial bet 5th District Rep. Mon-Mon Guico says 90 percent of his provincemates will vote for Marcos this time.

"It goes to show na mas gusto niyang pumunta sa ground, maramdaman at makita ang pulso ng tao," Guico said in Binalonan town on Saturday. "I think if you weigh between 'yung ano niyo, 'yung debate niyo sa inyong programa at 'yung makasama 'yung taumbayan dito sa Pangasinan, I think you would understand no 'yung reason niya.”

[Translation: It goes to show that Marcos wants to go on the ground, feel and see the pulse of the people. I think if you weigh between being on the debate, and being with the people of Pangasinan, I think you would understand his reason.]

"We'll see"

Marcos' participation in future televised debates, whether or not sponsored by the Commission on Elections, is still up in the air.

He has already ordered his campaign manager Benhur Ablaos to seek a discussion with the Comelec and the campaign managers of other presidentiables regarding the format of the succeeding debates.

"Partikular sa Amerika, na lahat ng tatakbo doon sa debate ay dapat naguusap-usap (sa format) para pagdating sa debate, ang ground rules ay settled na," Abalos said on Monday.

[Translation: Particularly in America, where all candidates discuss the format so that the ground rules are already settled once the debate begins.]

Abalos said the Comelec has not responded yet to his request.

But for the Marcos camp, it seems that hitting the campaign trail is more than enough to woo voters, as shown in recent surveys.

"This is our way of directly communicating with the Filipino people. This is our way of communicating unadulterated, unfiltered, and unbiased," Rodriguez said.