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You can just feel how much the NDP wants to tie Stephen Harper close to Rob Ford.

They've been circling it, with sly nudges, broad hints and a few sharper pokes. But they haven't quite found the direct route yet. In the meantime, the Prime Minister is finally trying to inch away from the Toronto mayor.

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The Senate scandal has given the opposition, especially the NDP, a lot of ammo against Mr. Harper, but you don't need to be a communications genius to see the Rob Ford train wreck is on everyone's lips and TV screens.

The exception for weeks on end was Mr. Harper and his Conservatives, who squirmed uncomfortably but stayed silent because Ford Nation was a rough approximation of the Tory voter pool in Toronto area. Why offend those sticking with him and still blaming lefty elites for his woes? For a while, that silence largely kept the Ford mess out of the federal political clash.

But on Sunday, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair drew a Harper-Ford link in while campaigning for his party's Linda McQuaig for this Monday's by-election in Toronto Centre. He pointed to the fact that Mr. Harper lauded Mr. Ford, hosted him on a fishing trip, and then a barbecue – and essentially identified them as part of the same political tribe. "The Conservatives have been saying for years that Rob Ford's their guy," he said. "They're going to have to wear it now."

On Monday, there was a little more. New Democrat MP Andrew Cash read a statement, in the fallow moments before Question Period, in which he called Mr. Ford "the prime minister's fishing buddy." In Question Period, New Democrat Megan Leslie, posing questions about the Senate scandal, remarked that the Toronto mayor had "admitted to some very serious crimes and misdemeanours" but the Prime Minister's Office was under investigation, too. When a reporter asked later, she was happy to highlight the "cozy" ties between Mr. Ford and the Conservatives, and attack the "incredible hypocrisy" of a law-and-order party that's quiet about "a mayor who says he does drugs." (The allegations against Mr. Ford have not been proven in court.)

But it wasn't quite a frontal assault. Question Period is the opposition's stage, and they haven't yet found a parliamentary way to cast Rob Ford and Stephen Harper in the same scene. There isn't federal government business in the Rob Ford saga. Government ministers aren't supposed to opine on whether someone should be prosecuted. Questions on whether he should be removed get answers that city hall isn't federal business.

Still, if it's not quite as easy as pasting Rob Ford's head on Stephen Harper's body, the Conservatives have got to figure now that NDP operatives will keep trying to make the link. Wouldn't they do the same? And after Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak indicated he'd support legislation to oust Mr. Ford, if necessary, the silence of the federal Tories was growing more conspicuous.

On Monday afternoon, Mr. Harper's spokesman, Jason MacDonald, broke the silence.

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"These latest allegations are troubling," he said in an e-mail sent to several news organizations. "Our Government does not condone illegal drug use, especially by elected officials while in office, including Justin Trudeau."

It's not quite cutting bait, since Mr. Harper's spokesman didn't say whether Mr. Ford should go – and tossed in a little counter-jab aimed at Mr. Trudeau. Just what "latest allegations" Mr. Harper found troubling was left unclear, since they stayed silent on his admission he smoked crack. But it is an attempt at inoculation.

In the meantime, the New Democrats hope Mr. Mulcair's stance that Mr. Ford must go will help in the Toronto Centre by-elections, a downtown riding where Ford Nation is weak, and doesn't vote NDP, anyway.

Mr. Trudeau's Liberals, meanwhile, are mostly, on the sidelines. They aren't itching to jump into the ugly Ford drama. Mr. Trudeau has said Mr. Ford needs help, and left it at that. His advisers say they don't want a part in its negative politics.

Perhaps the Liberals are also sensitive to Ford Nation in suburban Toronto ridings. But Mr. Trudeau, who is portraying himself as the candidate of hope and who still seems to be floating on a political honeymoon – polls show his Liberals might win three of four by-elections next week – probably doesn't have much to gain in touching the muck, anyway.

Mr. Ford doesn't seem to care. Whatever the muck, he's digging in to fight. But in Ottawa, the federal parties are taking up positions to deal with the splatter.

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Campbell Clark is a columnist in The Globe's Ottawa bureau.

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