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Aquino's son heads home to drum up support for presidential bid

By Steve Lunt, for CNN
  • Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino is son of revered former president Corazon Aquino
  • He is competing against nine others for the presidency
  • Voters go to polls on May 10 in the Southeast Asian nation
  • Aquino vows to fight corruption, restore integrity in government

Tarlac, Philippines (CNN) -- The crowd gathered inside Concepcion church could not have seemed better to Senator Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III: Most people were clad in yellow, the color his mother -- revered former president Corazon "Cory" Aquino -- wore to symbolize her fight for democracy. The candidate received a rock-star welcome, with supporters vying to get near him.

Aquino last week launched his bid for president here in Concepcion, Tarlac, his family's homeland. Returning to his roots was perhaps the safest way to start on this first official day of the presidential campaign season: His popularity in recent polls has slightly dipped against his main rival, Manuel "Manny" Bamba Villar Jr. Eight others are also in the running to lead the Southeast Asian nation of more than 90 million. Voters go to the polls on May 10.

Buoyed by the congregation's energy and surrounded by jostling media cameras, Aquino addressed his supporters from the lectern at the end of the Mass. He said Concepcion was special to him because of his family's history there, and he noted his first time speaking publicly was at the town plaza in 1976, when his father was given an award during martial law.

But Aquino, 50, received his biggest cheers when he spoke of his determination to fight corruption in a country where 77 percent of the people believe the current government's actions in fighting corruption have been ineffective, according to a recent survey by Transparency International.

Among the Aquino supporters in the church was Jolly Punzanan, a 21-year-old nursing graduate.

"You can trust the Aquino family. They are honest, good people. Noynoy will be a good president," he said, adding his advice for the next government, "They need to focus on people who believe in them, the people who are poor."

The rally attendees paraded out of the church and onto the streets of Concepcion Town into a plaza. This is safely established as Aquino country: Former Senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr., the candidate's father, began his political career here as the country's youngest elected mayor. Now, hundreds sheltered from the sun under brightly colored umbrellas to support his son, who stood on stage, shoulder-to-shoulder with his political team.

The plaza's busy routine was put on hold as local residents paused at their market stalls, sat on their tricycles, or stood in the road to listen to Aquino, cheering at his condemnation of corruption and his promises to restore integrity in government.

No political campaign in the Philippines would be complete without a celebrity supporter -- a key element to get the attention of voters in a country where actors and musicians are often deified. One of Aquino's backers, the popular actor Coco Martin, appeared on stage and told voters gathered around the plaza that he endorsed Aquino's Liberal Party.

At a nearby bakery, Luzbisminda Rayos, a social studies teacher at the local high school, caught part of the rally while on her way to buy some fresh bread. She said she would vote for Aquino.

"The Aquinos are a good family. When they become president they help to stop corruption -- even though they have power. They are honest," she said, casually swinging her bag of bread rolls.

In the evening, Aquino's supporters attended the biggest rally of the day at Tarlac City plaza, which has a new monument to Aquino's mother -- who stood against dictator Ferdinand Marcos and was propelled to power in the 1986 "people power" revolution.

Aquino, known for her signature color yellow, died last year from cancer. Now, hundreds of camera lights from the TV networks highlighted the bright yellow worn by almost everyone, swarming excitedly around the main stage to support her son.

Aquino's security chief Rico Puno surveyed the noisy crowds and estimated there were about 10,000 people gathered in the dusk.

"We have ten armed police officers to secure him on a 24 hour basis," Puno said. "And then we hired ten private security escorts -- they are all armed. ... We're allowed up to 20 armed security escorts; and we also have unarmed volunteers with us to take care of crowd control."

That is another element of Filipino elections: High security, especially after the recent politically-motivated killing of 57 people in the country's south.

Security can also be high if your name is Aquino and you are successful in politics: Benigno Aquino Jr. was assassinated upon returning to Manila in 1983 from U.S. exile to challenge Marcos. When Cory Aquino was president later that decade, rebel soldiers attacked Malacanang Palace -- the president's residence -- in 1987 and Noynoy Aquino narrowly escaped death. Three of his escorts were killed, and he was hit by five bullets -- one of which is still embedded in his neck.

On the platform that evening, Aquino appeared relaxed, delivering serious messages that he alternated with crowd-pleasing humor.

After a long day of rallies, Aquino returned to his friend's farmhouse in Tarlac for dinner with friends and supporters. He thought his first day of campaigning went "very well -- better than I expected. Wherever we've been, we've had more or less the same enthusiasm in reception. The people have been very demonstrative, even where we thought they would be more reserved."

A close friend, Rene Puno, said Aquino's decision to run for president has changed his life: "He's become more self-confident, he knows how to stand by his rights. There is a burden of people longing for someone as strong as his mother and his father -- they have high expectations."