By Kim Tong-hyung, Chung Min-uck
Moments after Ahn Cheol-soo ended his multi-week circus of flip-flopping and committed to the campaign of Democratic United Party (DUP) candidate Moon Jae-in, Woo Sang-ho, Moon's spokesman, was caught grinning like a Cheshire cat.
''This is s whole new ballgame,'' said the beaming lawmaker, whose expression was notably gloomier earlier in the day when the union between Moon and Ahn seemed irrevocably damaged and conservative candidate Park Geun-hye's lead in opinion polls looked to be widening.
While the clock ticks louder toward the Dec. 19 vote, Woo was confident that the endorsement of Ahn, the computer software millionaire popular with both liberal and conservative voters, could prove enough to nudge Moon ahead of Park.
''With Ahn back on board, we will finally be able to put our campaign push in full gear from tomorrow (Friday). We will work on our policies and strengthen our efforts to differentiate us from Park," he said.
''The process of merging the candidacies (between Moon and Ahn) failed to produce a clean ending so we believe that about 2.5 percent to 4 percent of Ahn's supporters remain undecided between Moon and Park. The race will now be on a knife edge, but if Moon and Ahn are able to create a synergy effect between them, we think that will swing more undecided voters to our side and allow us to come from behind and win.''
Of course, it was predictable that Woo would take the glass-half-full approach. Political pundits and polling experts, however, seemed mixed with optimism and skepticism.
Since the talks between Moon and Ahn to merge their candidacies fell through last month, Park, representing the conservative ruling Saenuri Party, has been strengthening her ground in key battlefields such as the Seoul metropolitan area and the southern regions.
But the departure of Ahn, who withdrew from the race after his talks with Moon failed, assured that swing voters, believed to represent about 10 to 15 percent of the electorate, would have a larger say in this election. It remains to be seen whether the renewed Moon-Ahn tag team can absorb enough of them and turn the tide in their favor.
A poll jointly conducted by the Dong-A Ilbo and Research & Research, conducted before Ahn's endorsement of Moon, had Park leading Moon in support by 43.5 percent to 40.2 percent, with 13.8 percent of the respondents measured as undecided. A Gallup Korea survey, conducted from Dec. 3 to 5, had Park ahead of Moon by 46 percent to 41 percent with undecided voters measured at 11 percent.
Shin Yul, a Myongji University professor and political pundit, said that Ahn could prove a double-edged sword for Moon, who may see his support tick up by a few points but also witness conservatives and the more right-leaning centralists gravitating toward Park.
''I think Ahn's support could boost Moon's approval rate by about 3 to 4 percentage points,'' he said in a telephone conversation.
''But Ahn is faced with a dilemma. He can't ignore the liberal voters who had provided the lion's share of his support and now wish him to support Moon's bid to prevent the conservatives from taking office gain. However, it was Ahn himself who denounced the DUP as part of the old politics he wanted to eliminate with his new politics.
''So basically, he shook the hand of a presidential candidate who represents par to the ancient regime. I am not sure he really has his heart into it and wasn't forced by others who had supported him throughout his campaign. I really don't see him being full-fledged in helping Moon's campaign push. And that would mean he is merely providing a rallying point for Park's supporters.''
On the other hand, Hong Hyung-shik, the president of Hangil Research, believes that Ahn's support of Moon has the potential to reshape the election landscape.
''This will develop into a close race with Moon now having the puncher's chance. I don't think Ahn's reappearance will galvanize Park's supporters any more than they already are,'' he said.
''Our studies show that if Ahn gives Moon his full support, the gap between Moon and Park is reduced from 6 percent to 4 percent, with more of Ahn's supporters, who had been disgruntled after the departure of their candidate, moving toward Moon. It still won't be a case of one plus one being more than two, but yes, it will definitely give Moon a visible boost.''