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David Soknacki was one of the first to enter what might become a very crowded field of contenders to be Toronto’s mayor. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
David Soknacki was one of the first to enter what might become a very crowded field of contenders to be Toronto’s mayor. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Will Rob Ford’s opponents split the vote? Not likely Add to ...

David Soknacki – in. John Tory – in. Karen Stintz – in. Olivia Chow – expected. Denzil Minnan-Wong – considering. There are nearly eight months to go till the Oct. 27 election for Toronto mayor and already the field is thick with contenders to topple Rob Ford.

That worries those eager to rid the city of Mr. Ford. What if the anti-Ford vote splits and he slips through the door to re-election?

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Those who want to prevent the left-leaning Ms. Chow from becoming mayor in his place are worried, too. With all those candidates claiming the title of sensible fiscal conservative – Fordism without the crack – the right-of-centre vote could fracture and let her take the mayor’s chair. One columnist even called Mr. Ford’s conservative rivals the Olivia Chow Mayoral Election Committee.

Fears about vote-splitting are understandable – it would be bizarre to see Mr. Ford re-elected after becoming a worldwide laughingstock; weird to have a sharp turn to the left with Ms. Chow after the sharp swing the other way under Mr. Ford – but all the worrying is probably groundless.

In most city elections, the field narrows as the campaign goes on and voters gravitate to one or two leading candidates. The last time Mr. Tory ran, in 2003, it was him against David Miller in the final weeks as former mayor Barbara Hall’s campaign fizzled.

Mr. Miller ended with 43 per cent of the vote, Mr. Tory 38, Ms. Hall 9 and former Liberal MP John Nunziata 5.

In the previous election, in 2010, it came down to Rob Ford against former provincial cabinet minister George Smitherman. Mr. Ford took 47 per cent of the vote, Mr. Smitherman 35 and Miller deputy Joe Pantalone 11. Rocco Rossi, Sarah Thomson and Giorgio Mammoliti dropped out.

Something similar can be expected this time around, with voters settling on a couple of favourites – or perhaps just one – some time after Labour Day.

Who those candidates will be (Ms. Chow versus Mr. Tory? Ms. Stintz versus Mr. Ford? Mr. Tory alone?) is anybody’s guess. Let’s not forget that Mr. Miller was way behind in the polls through most of the 2003 race or that most observers thought Mr. Ford was a long shot when he joined the 2010 campaign.

If Ms. Chow comes in as expected this month, it seems likely she would have that side of the field all to herself. She is such a big name that no other left-leaning candidate would dare to cramp her style. While that would relieve her of competing with like-minded candidates, it would also make her a target for those on the right, all of whom would try to paint her as tax-and-spend type who would take us back to the dark days of Mr. Miller.

It’s simplistic to think of the election as a simple right-left struggle in any case. There are no parties in city politics and people tend to vote for the individual, as much as the tendency, they prefer. Some will always vote for a tribune of the right, others of the left. Most will have a look at the field and make up their minds. Many, for instance, will be open to voting for either Ms. Chow or Mr. Tory, despite the ideological differences between the two.

No matter how it all shakes out, it’s unlikely we will enter the last stage of the election with a whole troop of contenders that all have a chance to win or take a big chunk of the vote. The brutal, months-long campaign exposes weaknesses and reveals strengths. The weak fall by the wayside, the strong emerge as true contenders.

That there are so many keen contenders at this early stage is something to celebrate, not lament. One reason Mr. Ford prevailed last time around was the lack of good alternatives. Mr. Smitherman, a former deputy premier of Ontario, came to the race with some serious baggage from the e-Health affair and other Liberal fumbles. He ran a dismal, unfocused campaign. Mr. Pantalone never shook his image as yesterday’s man.

As election day drew near, there were desperate calls for Mr. Pantalone to throw his support to Mr. Smitherman as part of a Stop-Ford movement – an echo of today’s fears over vote-splitting. Mr. Ford had such momentum he almost certainly would have prevailed anyway.

This election, the options are much better. Mr. Tory is a respected civic leader. Ms. Stintz showed real leadership when she faced down Mr. Ford over his fuzzy transit plans. Mr. Soknacki is running a one-man civic geek squad, handing out serious policy papers left and right. Mr. Minnan-Wong is a smart, well-spoken conservative who helped lead the effort to reduce Mr. Ford’s powers after the crack scandal. Ms. Chow is an experienced stalwart of the left with years of grounding in city politics.

Some of their positions and poses overlap, especially on the right, but as they talk through scores of debates and churn out dozens of press releases and position papers, distinctions are bound to emerge. Leaders will emerge from the pack. Voters are capable of acting strategically. Most won’t waste their votes on an also-ran if they know that it might lead to a result they don’t want, like, say, re-electing Mr. Ford.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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