MANILA - Her life story could have come straight out of a soap opera. As a newborn, Grace Poe was abandoned in a Catholic church and adopted by movie star parents, giving her a powerful narrative and name that have helped catapult her to front-runner in the Philippine presidential race.
A political newcomer, elected to the Senate just three years ago, Poe has promised to cut taxes, fight crime and offer free kindergarten-to-college education for the poor. But it is the popularity of her late father, regarded as the king of Philippine movies, and her humble beginnings that appeal to the masses in this country where presidents have traditionally come from the landed gentry and political elite.
The 47-year-old candidate's campaign speeches are peppered with dialogues from the movies of her late father Fernando Poe Jr., popularly known as FPJ, who often played roles of an underdog battling powerful opponents to champion the poor and oppressed. He too ran for president in 2004 but lost amid allegations he was cheated in an election many viewed as marked by fraud. He died months later, unable to carry out his battles off the screen.
His daughter is pledging to fight real-life poverty and despair - and her father's public image is a huge asset in her campaign.
“I like her because Fernando Poe is my idol,” said Eliza Oledan, a laundrywoman with nine children, after hearing Poe a rally in Manila. “I also like her platform of government, especially that she will make college education free.” One of her children had to stop schooling due to lack of money, Oledan said.
Poe's compelling life story nearly cost her her candidacy, however, when opponents claimed that because she was a foundling, it wasn't clear that she was a natural-born Filipino, as the constitution requires. Last month, the Supreme Court declared her qualified to run.
Other detractors have questioned her allegiance because she once renounced her Filipino citizenship to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. Poe later gave up her U.S. passport to accept a government post. Her husband and children are American citizens.
If elected president on May 9, Poe tells voters she will offer a free lunch program for all public day care and elementary schools, more job opportunities for women and more aid to farmers.
She told an audience of mostly college students that she would increase Internet speed in the country, among the slowest in Asia. And she told businessmen she would improve infrastructure and push to amend the economic provisions of the constitution that discourage foreign investments.
“I think I can deliver on those promises,” she told The Associated Press. “Filipinos should really have a leader that unifies.”
Asked if she believes her poignant life story is boosting her campaign, she said it's important that the candidate has a story to tell, but most important is that “the candidate would be able to understand the story of our people, and in our case we don't want anyone left behind.”
Temario Rivera, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, credits Poe's popularity to her fresh public personality untainted by corruption allegations, her ability to connect with ordinary people and her father's popularity.
“The foundling narrative is a very powerful narrative,” he said. The celebrity status of her family as well as her and her father's underdog image “hits the right note, especially for a society where many continue to be poor and marginalized.”
A recent survey by independent pollster Social Weather Stations gave Poe support from 34 percent of would-be voters. Tough-talking Mayor Rodrigo Duterte got 31 percent while Vice President Jejomar Binay and former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas both got 17 percent.
Poe's critics have pounced on her lack of experience, but Rivera points out the same could be said of U.S. President Barack Obama when he assumed office. Poe needs to assemble a good team and be a fast learner, he added.
Some have been upset by the support she has received from a wealthy businessman who allegedly profited from a tax imposed on impoverished coconut farmers during the martial law regime of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Others have questioned her personal story. For years, rumors have swirled that she is the illegitimate daughter of Marcos with her adoptive mother's sister - a rumor Poe and her family deny.
At a recent rally, dressed in her trademark immaculate white shirt and blue jeans, Poe told the working class audience that those who question her being Filipino only need to look at her round nose, short height and dark hair.
“There are so many children who are found abandoned in garbage dumps in Manila,” she said. “Every week, we hear news of children being thrown away. Can we say they are not Filipino?”
Everyone should be given equal opportunity, she said, and that is why she will push for free education for the poor.
“The problem with political candidates is they are all honey-tongued during election,” said Ramon Castro, a technician who favors another presidential candidate but acknowledges Poe's lead in polls. If she wins, he said, “let's see if she can fulfill her promises.”