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Rodrigo Duterte, seven-term mayor of Davao city, who has built a reputation for fighting crime in the insurgency-plagued southern Philippines, gestures during an interview with Reuters in Manila, Philippines, in this file picture taken December 10, 2015. REUTERS/Czar Dancel/Files

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By Manuel Mogato

MANILA (Reuters) - A Philippine mayor who built a reputation for fighting crime apologised on Tuesday for a rape comment that caused a political storm and could dent his chances of winning the presidency in an election three weeks away.

Rodrigo Duterte, who opinion polls show as the frontrunner, issued a statement saying he regretted the remark about an Australian woman who was raped and killed in a prison riot in 1989. The video of his comment, made at a recent rally, appeared on YouTube at the weekend and he had until Tuesday refused to apologise.

His comment sounded like a joke when he spoke of the attractiveness of the rape victim and it caused a public outcry that experts said could cost him votes.

"I apologise to the Filipino people for my recent remarks," said Duterte, who is the first presidential candidate from the southern island of Mindanao.

"There was no intention of disrespecting our women and those who have been victims of this horrible crime. Sometimes my mouth can get the better of me. My life is an open book. I am a man of many flaws and contradictions," he added.

Independent pollster Pulse Asia released on Tuesday a survey taken before the remark, which showed Duterte had widened his lead over his nearest rival to seven points.

Duterte was the top choice of 32 percent of the 4,000 respondents in the April 5-10 survey, up two points from the last poll in late March.

"We still don't know what will be the effect on his numbers in the next survey after his rape comments," Pulse Asia president Ronald Holmes told Reuters.

"Definitely, it will have an impact, so it is still premature to predict a winner."

The survey showed Senator Grace Poe in second place with 25 percent and Vice President Jejomar Binay had 20 percent. Both were unchanged from the previous poll.

President Benigno Aquino's hand-picked successor, Manuel Roxas was at 18 percent, dropping one point.

Pulse Asia plans four more surveys, including one a week before the May 9 elections, Holmes said.

"By that time, we will have a clearer picture on who may be the next president."

About 54 million Filipinos are eligible to vote in the elections, which will be closely watched by investors, some of whom fear the political succession in one of Asia's fastest-growing economies could impact gains made under Aquino.

(Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Martin Petty and Simon Cameron-Moore)

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