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Toronto mayor Rob Ford reacts as he speaks to his supporters during his campaign launch in Toronto on Thursday, April 17, 2014. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto mayor Rob Ford reacts as he speaks to his supporters during his campaign launch in Toronto on Thursday, April 17, 2014. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Ford launches populist crusade, er, political campaign Add to ...

Warming up for local rock star Rob Ford, the band entertaining fans at the mayor’s campaign launch played You Sexy Thing, the 1975 hit by Hot Chocolate that begins “I believe in miracles.”

It would be a miracle right up there with the raising of Lazarus if the crack-smoking, police-chief-cussing, P-word dropping international punchline were to come back from all his troubles and win re-election on Oct. 27. But in the evangelical atmosphere of his launch, amid the Hallelujah chorus of his cheering, whistling, hooting, table-thumping supporters, it almost seemed plausible.

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Conventional wisdom among political operatives is that you always hire a modest-sized space for events like this. It looks fuller that way and you don’t risk showing empty seats on TV. Olivia Chow’s launch was in a church, John Tory’s in a downtown community hall.

That’s not how the Fords roll. They got the Toronto Congress Centre, a vast barn on Dixon Road with polished-concrete floors and cinderblock walls that looks big enough to host a monster-truck rally. They filled maybe half of the 290 tables of 10 seats each. They gave away T-shirts to the first thousand arrivals. They sold Ford for Mayor buttons ($1 and $2), blow-up clappers ($5), foam fingers ($7) and thermal coffee mugs ($7).

As the program got underway, brother Doug tuned up the crowd, beaming at the cheering multitudes with his salesman’s 500-watt smile. “Rob has made some mistakes in his personal life,” he allowed. But he’s “moving forward a wiser person … and I hope each and every person in here remembers that we’re all human.” Big cheers for that line, a variation of the “nobody’s perfect” defence the mayor has been mounting since he admitted last year to smoking crack.

At around 8 p.m., the mayor himself made a grand entrance, marching down a red carpet toward the stage. A bagpiper led the march. His cheerleader niece, raised on the shoulders of others, carried a big Canadian flag.

When the mayor took the podium, he did not disappoint the delirious inhabitants of Ford Nation. Mr. Ford is uneven as a speaker, sometimes forceful, sometimes plodding. This night he was on his game, delivering a true barn-burner that had the crowd on its feet and played to all the themes of his unlikely re-election bid. Leaving aside the actual, er, content, it was the best oratorical performance he has delivered since he started running for mayor the first time in 2010.

He attacked the “caviar Calvins” and “special-interest Sallys.” He boasted of derailing the gravy train.

He spoke of his love for the city and his dedication to the hard-pressed taxpayer. He said he owed everything to the people of Toronto, and “you are the salt of the earth.” He told them: “I get up every day thinking about you the taxpayers and no matter what mud is thrown at me, no matter what they say, I don’t let them stop me serving you day in and day out.”

It was classic populist stuff and the crowd lapped it up like cold beer at a hot picnic. Say what you like about him, Mr. Ford is a master at this sort of raw, rabble-rousing politics. For all the nonsense in his platform and the bungles in his record, he is a formidable campaigner and that skill was on vivid display Thursday evening.

As he got to the meat of his address, his voice rose to a hoarse roar: “Together we will continue to challenge the elitists, the special interests and those who want to spend our hard-earned money without any consequence.”

The crowd roared back. For one night, at least, they could believe in miracles.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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