Reuters International

Philippine presidential candidate Grace Poe waves to the crowd as she leaves after attending the International Women's Day rally by Gabriela Party List women's group in Manila March 8, 2016. REUTERS/Czar Dancel

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MANILA (Reuters) - A woman abandoned in a central Philippine church when a baby has topped an opinion poll barely two months ahead of elections to succeed President Benigno Aquino, an independent pollster said on Friday.

The May 9 election will be closely watched by investors, who fear the political succession in one of Asia's fastest growing economies could derail gains made during Aquino's six-year single term.

Grace Poe, 47, was the top-ranked candidate among 28 percent of 4,000 respondents in the March 15 to 20 survey commissioned by broadcaster ABS-CBN, a week after the Supreme Court ruled she was eligible to run for president.

The result cements Poe's position as front-runner to become the third woman leader of the poor Southeast Asian state.

"Nearly three in 10 Filipino registered voters would elect Senator Grace Poe as the country’s next president if the May 2016 elections took place during the survey period," said Ronald Holmes, president of independent pollster Pulse Asia.

The survey was the first after the court dispelled doubts over her candidacy with its ruling in her favour. A week earlier the same pollster had said Poe was in a statistical tie with a southern mayor as top contender with 26 percent.

The poll result would inspire the senator to work harder, her campaign spokesman said.

"The trust and confidence of the Filipino voting public fuels Senator Poe to intensify her drive to drum up interest in her platform of governance," said Rex Gatchalian.

Poe had faced questions over whether she met legal requirements to run for the country's highest office, such as being a natural-born citizen with 10 years of residency, but the Supreme Court ruled in her favour on March 8.

Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte was in second place with 24 percent, dropping one percentage point from a week earlier to reach a statistical tie with Vice President Jejomar Binay, who improved a point to 23 percent.

Aquino's handpicked candidate, Manuel Roxas, remained in fourth place with 19 percent, losing a point from an earlier poll. Another senator, Miriam Santiago, only has 2 percent. About 4 percent of registered voters are still undecided.

In power since 2010, Aquino is barred by the constitution from seeking a second term. Under his leadership, the Philippines has seen economic growth of more than 6 percent on average, its best five-year record in four decades.

About 54 million of a population of 100 million are eligible to vote to choose a president, vice president and more than 18,000 local government executives and lawmakers in the general elections, which take place every six years.

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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