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Rodrigo Duterte, 70, 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 December 10, 2015. REUTERS/Czar Dancel

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MANILA (Reuters) - A tough-talking mayor in the southern Philippines, who has vowed to end corruption and crime, has topped the latest opinion poll and become the new frontrunner in the presidential election campaign ahead of elections in May.

Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, 71, the only candidate for president from the southern island of Mindanao, has seen a steady rise in support after polling badly early in the campaign. His tough stand on crime has begun to resonate with many Filipinos.

In the latest opinion poll, former favourite Senator Grace Poe dropped to second.

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

The SWS opinion poll released on Monday found Duterte was the top choice among 27 percent of 1,500 respondents in the March 30 to April 2 survey.

"The SWS survey validated Duterte's numbers are rising steadily as evidenced by large crowd attending his political rallies," said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute of Political and Electoral Reforms.

"But, elections are still about a month away, so you cannot count the other candidates out. It will be a tight race until the end. It's still anything goes."

In the previous SWS opinion poll in early March, Duterte had 21 percent while Poe, abandoned in a church when a baby, had 27 percent in that period. She slid down to second place with 23 percent in the latest poll.

Vice President Jejomar Binay remained in third spot with 20 percent, former interior minister Manuel Roxas, who is the president's hand picked successor, was fourth with 18 percent and Senator Miriam Satiago had 3 percentage.

"We are grateful that the surveys are now reflecting what we have been witnessing and experiencing on the ground,” Peter Tiu Lavina, Duterte’s spokesman, said in a statement.

In the vice president contest, the only son and namesake of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos has taken a lead with 26 percent after Senator Francis Escudero, who led opinion polls since 2015, dropped seven points to 21 percent.

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 Michael Perry)

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