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Toronto Mayor John Tory takes part in an ArtsVote 2018 debate at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Sept. 24, 2018.Fred Lum

What is John Tory afraid of? Toronto’s mayor is refusing to take part in any head-to-head debates with his leading rival in the current election campaign, former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat. He says he will show up only for debates that include other, lesser candidates.

It’s not a good look for Mr. Tory, a former business executive and Ontario Progressive Conservative leader who is seeking a second four-year term. It makes him seem weak and uncertain at a time when he is trying to persuade the city that he is a confident, sure-footed leader. Worse, it deprives voters of an opportunity to see the two main candidates in an important election have a sustained exchange about where they stand and how they differ on the issues.

Mr. Tory’s unfortunate position broke into the headlines this week when the CBC cancelled a debate planned for Oct. 16. The exchange would have been moderated by Matt Galloway, host of CBC Radio’s weekday morning show, and broadcast on radio, television and online. A studio audience at the CBC Broadcast Centre would watch.

The CBC invited just Mr. Tory and Ms. Keesmaat. Mr. Tory tried to get some of the others included. The network responded that it could not let one of the candidates dictate who should be invited. It has its own guidelines for determining the answer to that question, a common and contentious one in elections for all levels of government. One factor it considers is whether a candidate has any hope of winning. In this race, polling has shown only two serious contenders. The others barely register. CBC executive Marissa Nelson said the network wanted to give Toronto voters a chance to “compare and contrast” the two top candidates. That is reasonable enough.

It is not as though competing voices are being silenced. Other debates – there are only a handful this time around – have featured a variety of candidates. One of them, to be held next Tuesday by The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Region Board of Trade, is to include neighbourhood organizer Sarah Climenhaga and lawyer Saron Gebresellassi. But while Mr. Tory and Ms. Keesmaat have done some sparring, voters haven’t seen them go one on one, just the two of them. And what is the purpose of a debate if not to test the principal candidates against each other?

Mr. Tory argues he isn’t worried about taking on Ms. Keesmaat alone. He just wants to see a range of people and perspectives in the debates. Questioned by reporters after giving a speech on Thursday, he went as far as to argue that one of his motives was simply to have a proper reflection of the city’s diversity on stage.

That is a little rich. The reason that the Tory camp wants to avoid a one on one is that it would legitimize Ms. Keesmaat. Voters who haven’t been paying attention would see that Mr. Tory has a serious and credible rival. Although this is her debut in politics, Ms. Keesmaat is a forceful speaker and a strong debater. People might like her.

If, on the other hand, she is on stage with others, then it looks as though she is just one in a crowd of no-hopers. It is the mayor – the well-known, incumbent mayor – against the rest.

This sort of gamesmanship is routine in election campaigns, especially around debates. But this time, it might backfire. The last thing Mr. Tory wants to do is leave the impression that he is trying to glide to re-election and dodge his only true rival.

Instead of avoiding Ms. Keesmaat, Mr. Tory should offer to debate her head to head anyplace, any time – bring it on. Leaders who truly believe in themselves don’t duck a fight.

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