SEOUL • With less than two weeks to go before South Korea's closely watched presidential vote, front runner Moon Jae In has continued to widen his lead over his closest rival Ahn Cheol Soo.
A new poll published on Thursday ahead of the May 9 election shows that Mr Moon of the Democratic Party had an approval rating of 44.4 per cent, while Mr Ahn of the People's Party received 22.8 per cent.
The gap has widened from 18.3 percentage points in an earlier survey to 21.6 percentage points.
The findings were based on a Realmeter survey of 1,520 voters conducted from Monday through Wednesday. The poll has a 2.5 per cent margin of error.
An official from Mr Ahn's camp told Yonhap news agency that the third presidential TV debate on Sunday involving the top five candidates "was a fatal blow" to its candidate. "He didn't come across positively in the debate, which led the (south-eastern) Daegu and North Gyeongsang province to turn their backs on him, while the (liberal stronghold) Honam seems to demonstrate a bandwagon effect (in Mr Moon's favour)," said the official, on condition of anonymity.
Mr Ahn, a former software mogul, "fought well" in the fourth TV debate on Tuesday, but its effect has yet to be reflected in opinion surveys, the official added.
In an editorial on Thursday, the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper slammed the candidates for failing to "draw out specific and feasible solutions for the nation's current and future challenges".
"None of them were able to come up with convincing insights and a vision for the future," said Joong Ang Ilbo, urging the contenders to focus on welfare, social and economic agendas in the remaining two debates.
"Voters must pay close attention to the final two sessions to judge who is more fit to navigate this troubled country against multiple challenges," the editorial added.
The race so far has been dominated by foreign policy issues such as the North Korea threat and the deployment of a United States anti-missile defence system.
Mr Moon has said the next administration in Seoul should have the final say on the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system.
It is being set up on a former golf course in the southern county of Seongju. The South Korean and US military authorities will likely complete a test operation of the system before the May 9 vote, reported DongA Ilbo.
A record 15 candidates threw their hat into the ring for the presidential race. One has since dropped out.
Mr Moon, a former human rights lawyer who became the chief of staff to the late president Roh Moo Hyun, has maintained his lead for the 17th consecutive week.
Mr Moon, 64, ran in the 2012 presidential election, where he was defeated by Park Geun Hye, the country's first female president who was impeached last month.
Mr Ahn, 55, appears to have lost his appeal with some of his older and more conservative supporters.
Both leading candidates are from the opposition as the conservative camp reels from South Korea's biggest political scandal that led to the downfall of Park, and triggered the early presidential vote.
She has been charged with colluding with her long-time friend Choi Soon Sil to pressure big businesses into donating to two foundations controlled by Choi.
A preparatory hearing for Park's trial is scheduled on May 2.
Her ruling Saenuri Party has renamed itself Liberty Korea Party while a small group of lawmakers broke away to form the Bareun Party.
The latest Realmeter survey found that the candidate of the Liberty Korea Party, Mr Hong Joon Pyo, is now in the third place with 13 per cent, up 2.5 points from last week.
Overseas voting for the election began on Tuesday in 116 countries.