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They came in their hundreds to hear him speak, and even those left standing outside the crowded hall would not be deterred from lingering in the proximity of the Baptist prophet from Tennessee.

It wasn't any old-time religion that drew these believers to Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto, but a concept they feel is every bit as crucial to humanity -- global warming -- that made them want to get close to Al Gore, the impassioned former U.S. vice-president, as he delivered his now famous Inconvenient Truth about climate change.

Like many a bygone leader who happened along at a key moment in history, Mr. Gore -- who has been sounding the environmental warning bell for years -- has suddenly inspired the kind of faith and fervour in others that he insists will be needed to overcome such a monumental problem.

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"From my perspective, it is a form of religion," said Bruce Crofts, 69, as he held a banner aloft for the East Toronto Climate Action Group amid a lively prelecture crowd outside the old hall.

"The religion for this group is doing something for the environment."

While he no longer espouses traditional religion, Mr. Crofts recalled how, as a Sunday school teacher decades ago, he included Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Robert Kennedy as well as Jesus Christ in his lessons, as examples of great leaders who stepped forward when called upon by circumstance. In that sense, he feels Mr. Gore fits the bill.

"We don't have seats tonight, but we just felt it was important to show some support for this guy," Mr. Crofts said. "He's flown in the face of the Bush administration and a lot of negative politics in the U.S. in order to do this stuff."

Mr. Gore's Toronto appearance was undoubtedly the hottest ticket in town, judging by the many adherents milling about outside, hoping to score tickets, few of whom succeeded.

With just 1,500 seats, 500 of which had been reserved for invited guests, the hall sold out in just three minutes when tickets went on sale for $20 each on Feb. 7.

The university's website for ticket sales crashed under the weight of 23,000 people vying for the prized seats. In the intervening days, some of the lucky few took full advantage of the chance to profit from the demand, asking for up to $200 for a single ticket on various Internet sites.

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Victor Storm, who owns a chain of Toronto-area bedding outlets, went online Feb. 7 and offered a $40 duvet in exchange for a ticket. He wound up surrendering a $150 duvet instead, after a fair bit of questioning over thread counts.

"Because it was so cold, it was something people warmed up to," Mr. Storm said yesterday.

Last night, before Mr. Gore gave his slideshow, it looked more like a sideshow outside, as hopefuls looked for tickets, scalpers told reporters they were not scalpers, and bona fide ticket holders ran a gauntlet of activists handing out leaflets for various causes.

There were vegans seeking new recruits, people calling for the closing of Ontario's coal-fired power plants, a Greenpeace mascot dressed as a polar bear -- even the UFO believers showed up.

"I know you won't believe this," one of them, a man named Victor Viggiani, said with a practised tongue, "but the extraterrestrial technology involved in this . . . it's free energy, man. Absolute free energy, and it'll be the end of fossil fuels."

Mr. Viggiani, a retired school principal, tried to get an information package to Mr. Gore when he arrived at a side door, but "the Secret Service were there; they saw my backpack and they pushed me away."

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Across the driveway in front of the hall, a large banner exhorted the crowd to "Heed the Goracle." Belonging to a fledgling group called ecoSanity, it was still there hours later, as Mr. Gore enjoyed a reception at the adjacent Simcoe Hall and the dispersing crowd voiced its praise.

"He's the prime minister we need in Canada," said Reid MacWilliam, who has been re-examining his entire life to make it more environmentally responsible.

Many attendees said that the speech closely mimicked the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, but they seemed pleased to listen to it again.

"You can't hear that message enough," said Shawn Omstead, attending with his daughter Meredith. "When we watched the movie, the next day we went and replaced all the light bulbs in the house . . . you see the movie and it sticks with you for a bit and then it fades."

"It was not our intention to have a religious approach," ecoSanity group founder Glenn MacIntosh said, "but it was our understanding that it was that kind of movement that people were craving; that kind of spiritual connection in their gut."

With a track record for concern about climate change that extends back to when relatively few were interested, Mr. Gore was "the right person at the right time" when he parlayed his high profile into a successful and sobering documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, last year, Mr. MacIntosh said.

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People responded because "they know this is happening, they know it's not good and that it has to stop," he said. "And, at last, the media and the world are beginning to pay attention."

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