LAST Wednesday, Leo Vanges, an unemployed father of three, walked four kilometers from his family's one-room shack to a Manila basketball stadium, pulled a spanking clean, green, white, and orange "Danding Cojuangco for President" T-shirt over his dingy undershirt, and joined a cheering squad at a political rally. For his efforts, he took home a styrofoam container of rice, hamburgers, and fried chicken, and a "Danding Is My Friend" bumper sticker.
Two days later he did the same thing - except the T-shirt read "Fidel Ramos for President" and the bumper sticker bore the smiling face of a man who served the governments of both current President Corazon Aquino and ex-president Ferdinand Marcos.
In this island country, where drama and patronage replace a discussion of issues, the three-month campaign has begun. On May 11, about 35 million eligible voters among the 62 million population will go to the polls to elect a new president, vice president, Congress, and thousands of local officials.
The large field of candidates - eight of the 72 presidential candidates are considered serious contenders - ensures an unpredictable outcome. There are no runoffs under Philippine law; if the field remains large and the vote is split, candidates need to muster only a small percentage of the vote to win.
Filipinos have looked forward to the May 11 polls as the first real elections since the Filipino people forced Marcos out in 1986. In some ways, it could be the test of how well Mrs. Aquino has been able to reinstitute democracy.
But early signs of the dominance of political machinery and the clout of money have already clouded the exercise. Recent voter registration may have to be repeated in some areas because of evidence of fraud - the number of registered voters in one Manila precinct was nearly double the official population.
I'll vote for whoever my boss - that military guy, the general who always comes around our place - tells us to vote for," says Mr. Vanges. In a country where candidates change affiliations and even jump from administration to opposition affiliations without looking back, Vanges represents the hungry man's ambivalence.
"They're all the same. I'm poor and my kids need food," says Vanges as Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco promises a "just land-reform program" from the podium. Vanges admits he does not know what land reform is. A popular vocalist clad in a white evening gown croons a love song. Smoke machines blast. Off-stage a husky amplified voice shouts "long live Danding Cojuangco" and green glitter floats down from the rafters.
Besides Mr. Cojuangco, a businessman who is alleged to have amassed his personal fortune through his friendship with Marcos, other presidential front-runners include Fidel Ramos, Aquino's former Defense Secretary, and Ramon Mitra, former speaker of the House of Representatives.
Other contenders include a former first lady, Imelda Marcos, Vice President Salvador Laurel, former Senate President Jovito Salonga, former Immigration Commissioner Miriam Defensor-Santiago, and Joseph Estrada, a popular movie star and politician.
Cojuangco is considered a steadfast opposition candidate who takes every opportunity to criticize the Aquino government. Ramos promises to further Aquino's programs and calls Cojuangco a "dark force of political oligarchy and economic monopoly."
Mr. Mitra is the odd man out. He was selected over Ramos as the candidate of Aquino's administration party. Ramos accused him of cheating, promptly quit the ruling party, and formed his own.
Aquino has bypassed Mitra and her own party to support Ramos. Mitra, still the administration candidate, sounds more like an opposition candidate every day and has disavowed Aquino.
The most colorful candidate is Mrs. Marcos. While her ability to actually run the country is questionable, some analysts argue that the burden of financing a campaign might force Marcos to repatriate some of the money sapped from the country during her husband's reign.
While it is clear Marcos cannot win a majority of the vote, response to her return has been triggered by curiosity. Her support seems limited to a segment of the poor that benefited from projects she initiated as first lady.
The shoestring campaign of Mrs. Defensor-Santiago could be the least traditional: She aims for young voters and professionals who are fed up with corruption.
"For evil to triumph it is sufficient that good men do nothing. Our task is to reform the culture of corruption," said Defensor-Santiago at her proclamation rally.
Defensor-Santiago consistently leads popularity polls but, although she is well-known, analysts say she will not be able to compete with the money and machinery of the other candidates.