The foreign media were in on the ground floor on the Philippines election story. And they have tried hard to keep it that way.

It was through American television that Filipinos first learned of the presidential campaign that has been a national obsession for them for the past 60 days. In an interview last November on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," President Ferdinand Marcos dropped the surprise announcement that he would submit himself to the voters a year ahead of schedule.

Now, as the voting begins, about 720 foreign journalists, many of them with no prior experience in the Philippines, are camped in the country. They have been chronicling the campaign in all the detail normally reserved for a home-state primary. Iceland and Yugoslavia are among the countries that cared enough to send someone.

The race's most explosive press disclosures so far have come in foreign publications. sk,1 This has led many Marcos supporters to charge the outsiders with bias toward opposition candidate Corazon Aquino and with "meddling" in the Philippines' internal affairs.

Foreign journalists have all but taken over the 18-floor Manila Hotel, a meeting ground of the country's elite -- and Marcos country to the point that not a single Aquino button can be found on staff lapels.

The three major U.S. TV networks have brought in a half dozen crews each and portable satellite stations to provide unhindered access to their headquarters in New York.

CBS has settled into a huge 18th-floor suite with a private indoor swimming pool, an arrangement much commented on by their colleagues. But CBS team chief Larry Doyle says the suite costs less than renting separate rooms. And as for the pool, "Not one person has yet been in it."

Election day (the polls were scheduled to open at 6 p.m. Thursday, EST) is being seen live in the United States. Peter Jennings of ABC and Tom Brokaw of NBC are anchoring their networks' evening news program from here during the election.

It is a good bet that American television audiences will see more of opposition candidate Aquino than will the voters she is courting.

Philippine television has made little pretense of giving her equal time. It took scant notice of a mammoth rally for her last week in Manila, but one for Marcos got on the air live, even though it attracted only about a third as many people.

Pro-government newspapers have been the same way. Bulletin Today, for instance, typically has run one story on the front page about the opposition and a half dozen or so on what Marcos is doing.

The several lively opposition papers turned the tables, leading their front pages with stories that at times had marginal relevance but allowed shots at Marcos. If foreign papers weighed in with something embarrassing to the president, the opposition papers reprinted it.

The San Jose Mercury News last year published a series probing into hidden wealth of Marcos and his wife Imelda. The two denied owning any of the U.S. real estate properties named by the paper, but the issue became the subject of a U.S. congressional investigation and a major attack point for Marcos' opposition.

Last month, The New York Times and The Washington Post published long pieces raising questions about Marcos' record during World War II, when he says he was a guerrilla fighting the Japanese. He has rejected charges that he fabricated acts of heroism, but this issue too has remained with him.

Such stories, appearing near the end of the campaign, have led to angry complaints among Marcos supporters that the foreign press is out to get him.

Said the Philippines Daily Express in an editorial: "Short of arming subversives committed to overthrow the government by force, the interventionists' most dangerous weapon is their media arsenal led by, among others, The New York Times."

Emotions reached a peak of sorts when another pro-government paper called foreign journalists "two-bit, white-skinned, hirsute, nasal-twanged, AIDS-predisposed visitors."

When a scuffle broke out between a foreign photographer and Marcos security men at the Manila Hotel last week, the two sides jumped in.

An opposition paper led its front page with an account of the incident, saying the photographer had covered turmoil in Lebanon and Iran but had never been beaten up until he came to Manila.

Officials at Marcos' Malacanang Palace, meanwhile, felt it necessary to come out with a statement depicting it as a simple case of the man taking a swing when he was asked to move. "Some foreign mediamen are just plain bullies," it said, adding that "today, the latest victims of these overbearing 'guests' were no less than the presidential security men."

Foreign reporters have been hampered in their work by calls that don't go through and appointments that aren't kept. But things have been eased by the fact that Filipinos love to talk and can usually do it in English (though nationalist sentiments are leading politicians to speak more in Tagalog, the national language, when they address the public).

Marcos is one of the world's more accessible heads of state. When he is feeling well, he at times gives a two- or three-hour interview for several days running to visiting journalists. His wife occasionally calls late-night meetings with foreign reporters of her choosing.

Marcos' press staff organized chartered planes to follow him around the country on campaign trips and could be counted on to slip the latest statements from the presidential palace under hotel doors.

Aquino has been sparing with time for foreign journalists (she tells aides she is not running for office abroad) and is known to be put off by their often aggressive style of interrogation. Still, her relations with them are cordial to the point that applause has been known to break out when she closes a press conference.

For a while this week, it looked as if the foreign media's clout was finally going to bring off a debate between the two candidates. Both had agreed to appear on "Nightline," even though they had been unable to come to terms on a debate on Philippine television. The deal fell through in the end, with Marcos declaring that it would be inappropriate to debate before a foreign audience.

Still, the foreign press rarely comes away empty-handed here. And sure enough, the candidates agreed to tape separate interviews for the show.

Facing the ABC cameras, Aquino charged that "the Marcos government has lost all credibility" and said she would call for peaceful demonstrations if "Mr. Marcos cheats me out of this election." Marcos denied that the election would be rigged, and said "I'm going to walk out" if questioning about his war record continued.

The program aired Wednesday night in the United States -- but was not shown in the Philippines, where campaign activity is prohibited on election eve.