Poll shows An is hot on Moon’s heels and gaining fast

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Poll shows An is hot on Moon’s heels and gaining fast

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South Chungcheong Governor An Hee-jung’s approval rating for this year’s election rose to 19 percent in the latest poll, proving him to be a formidable contender to frontrunner Moon Jae-in and raising the prospect of a hard-fought Democratic Party primary.

In a poll by Gallup Korea, the 51-year-old two-term governor came in second with 19 percent, trailing Moon, who won 29 percent of support.

While An is still 10 percentage points behind Moon, the latest poll is an encouraging sign for his supporters considering the fast pace at which his popularity has risen: 9 percent in a matter of one week.

The poll has reaffirmed the strong position the governor has secured in recent days, as seen by the growth of his public appeal, while Moon, who ran in the 2012 race and was bitterly defeated by President Park Geun-hye, is struggling to raise his rating beyond the 30 percent range.

Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn came in third with 11 percent, up by two percent from a week earlier, demonstrating continued support from conservative voters disheartened by the Choi-gate scandal, which led to President Park’s impeachment.

Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung and Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party followed with 8 and 7 percent each.

An’s recent gain of support is attributed to his campaign strategy, in which he seeks to appeal to center- right constituents by expressing his support for conservative policies.

One such move is his support for the U.S.-operated missile defense system known as Thaad, which has drawn sharp protest from Beijing and is opposed by many liberals.

An claims Seoul’s decision to deploy the anti-missile system should not be scrapped because it was a bilateral agreement with Washington, a stance welcomed by national security-conscious conservatives.

An also pledges to form a coalition governing system with the ruling Liberty Korea Party (LKP) and other opposition parties, an idea rejected by his rival Moon.

On the other hand, observers note that such attempts to win conservative support could backfire once he enters a party primary race against Moon. Liberal DP members disappointed over An’s recent leaning to the right could rally behind Moon and hand him the party nomination. An’s camp, aware of this, says it has good reason to do what it is doing now.

“We are very well aware that our current strategy to win conservative support could work against us at the party primary,” said Kwon Oh-jung, a campaign strategy manager. “But if we compete to take away Moon’s supporters [by leaning further left], it will guarantee us an inevitable defeat. If we reach the 20-percent range, Moon’s supporters will begin to recognize An as an alternative for Moon worthy of consideration.”

Experts say securing a 20-percent level of support is a minimum condition for second movers to catch up with the frontrunner.

An’s recent rise in approval comes in contrast with Seongnam Mayor Lee, who has seen a gradual fall in his approval over the recent weeks after he hit the mid-10 percent range. Lee, who rose to sudden political stardom thanks to his straight-forward manner and talking points in repudiation of the Park administration, has continued his strategy to appeal to liberal voters with the same hardline stance.

But while An is now nearing 20 percent, Lee is down to 8 percent in the Gallup poll. The poll was conducted of 1,007 people nationwide from Tuesday through Thursday with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

BY KANG JIN-KYU, KANG TAE-HWA [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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