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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford appears exasperated while asking questions of city staff during a budget meeting on Jan. 22 2014. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford appears exasperated while asking questions of city staff during a budget meeting on Jan. 22 2014. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Ivor Tossell

Replace Rob Ford? First, endure the Festival of Dithering Add to ...

The 2014 Festival of Dithering is upon us. On the main stage this week, Olivia Chow and John Tory have stepped up to think very publicly about running for mayor. It is not an especially good show.

Adam Vaughan, a Toronto councillor who’s had a mayoral thought or two in his years, put a sharp point on it earlier this week. “The real problem is the game of fake coyness. Everyone knows that John Tory is exploring his options again. Everyone knows that Olivia is timing an announcement; the question is when,” he said. “Everywhere you go, people want to know what the mayor’s race looks like. I think it’s time for these individuals to say this is the date and why I’m making this decision, and get over the pretense that I’m thinking about it.”

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When Ms. Chow joined Mr. Tory on his popular radio show on Tuesday, the host played this clip in a feeble attempt to clear the air.

“If Adam can look into the future and predict what’s going to happen, more power to him. I don’t have that power yet,” said Ms. Chow. “Maybe I’ll get that someday.”

Mr. Tory barely paused to breathe.

“I’ll accept that answer for myself as well!” he said, which sounded like something yelled over his shoulder while running in the opposite direction. And then the pair got back to the business at hand, of promoting Ms. Chow’s memoir.

Dodging questions about potential runs is a time-honoured political tradition. It’s an art of nuance and understatement, its own school of poetry, and it’s not without its admirers. What makes John Tory and Olivia Chow’s acts grating isn’t that they haven’t decided – they’re entitled not to have decided – but that they’re making such a spectacle of it. He’s a public figure, interviewing people every day on a high-profile radio show. She’s a sitting Member of Parliament and now an author, using her book as a kind of surrogate candidate to be campaigned for. “Thinking about running for mayor” looks a lot like “actually running for mayor,” but with plausible deniability.

To be sure, let’s first not rule out the possibility that neither Ms. Chow nor Mr. Tory have actually decided whether to run yet.

John Tory, for one, has better reason than ever to hem and haw. As the polls sit now, the situation looks a bit like this: On the right there’s Ford Nation, which, against all laws of man and nature, continues to exist. Rob Ford’s die-hards will deliver somewhere between 20 and 30 per cent of the vote to the mayor, unless he’s been indicted, incarcerated, or stuck in an elevator, and possibly even then. Much of Mr. Ford’s vote is untouchable, since nobody can outflank him to the right, especially now that Attila the Hun is dead.

Whoever runs as the left’s standard-bearer will scoop up a base of about the same size, especially if she (or he) is as well-known as Ms. Chow. That leaves a crowded field of candidates fighting over whatever’s left. John Tory would be fighting for the conservative middle ground with, at the very least, Karen Stintz, who hasn’t officially launched but has made no secret of her intentions, and David Soknacki, the low-key former budget chief who jumped into the race early and has been making the kinds of sensible noises that could make him a pundit’s favourite.

If the landscape wasn’t challenging enough, let’s remember that John Tory has a great deal of credibility where it comes to not knowing if he’s going to run for mayor. After losing to David Miller in 2003, Tory did the hokey-pokey with running in 2010, publicly mulling it over not once, but twice. The first round came in the months leading up to January 2010, the second, in the summer, after Toronto’s establishment realized with dawning horror that Rob Ford was on the way, and vainly scrambled to stop him. Mr. Tory has since said that family considerations kept him out. That may even be true.

Olivia Chow’s indecision is harder to fathom. The polls say she’s a prohibitive favourite. She would instantly become the standard-bearer of the left, the designated Ford-slayer, the beneficiary of the enormous pressure for strategic voting you can bet we’ll be hearing about all year. She has a campaign infrastructure ready to go, should she give the signal. If she were to withdraw, it would blow an enormous hole in the race, leaving the field wide open for progressives. (Adam Vaughan might not have been speaking with complete disinterest when voicing his impatience.) For now, she remains on book tour, which seems as convenient a trial balloon as any.

These are early days. Toronto’s mayoral races are longer than they should be, and we’re still in the informal primary period. Rob Ford didn’t even enter the 2010 race until the end of March. This year, anything could happen. John Tory could catch fire, even though that’s not really the kind of thing John Tory does. Olivia Chow, on the other hand, might not catch fire, proving to be less engaging on the campaign trail than polls say she is in the abstract. Rob Ford might turn up at midnight at a Dairy Queen, stoned on Quaaludes and speaking in a thick cockney accent, finally winning everyone over. At least we know he’s running.

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