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Ford’s friendship leaves Harper unhurt in polls, but vulnerable in House

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford adjust his tie in chambers at City Hall on Nov. 18, 2013.

DEBORAH BAIC/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

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There's no doubting there's been an unofficial political alliance between Rob Ford and federal Conservatives, but will Stephen Harper really pay a price for it?

The early indications suggest the federal Tories aren't bearing political blame. But their opponents are ramping up efforts to underline connections – including the Liberals' effort to highlight the extensive record of donations to Rob Ford made by Conservatives, and vice versa.

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In the week after Mr. Ford's admission he smoked crack, an Ipsos poll found that Mr. Harper's Conservatives have significantly more support in Toronto than the mayor. Ford Nation may be eroding, but there's no sign it's damaging the Tories.

The Ipsos surveys of 665 Torontonians conducted between Nov. 8-12 found that in races of declared or likely candidates – including MP Olivia Chow, former provincial Progressive Conservative leader John Tory and city Councillor Karen Stintz – Mr. Ford would be handily beaten, with support hovering just over 20 per cent in various election scenarios. Ipsos senior vice-president John Wright pegged Mr. Ford's support base at 22 per cent.

But Mr. Harper's Conservatives has 30 per cent support in Toronto, when respondents were asked to choose between federal parties. The Conservatives polled higher than Mr. Ford in areas deemed to be Ford Nation strongholds, like Scarborough, North York, and Mr. Ford's home turf in Etobicoke. Like Mr. Ford, the Conservatives are weak in downtown Toronto, but their support in places like North York (42 per cent) puts them in good standing to win seats.

Perhaps that's one reason Mr. Harper has started to distance himself from Mr. Ford, after staying silent for so long, worrying about alienating Ford Nation. The Prime Minister's spokesman said Monday that the allegations against the mayor are "troubling," and added that the government doesn't condone drug use. (The allegations against Mr. Ford have not been proven in court.)

It wasn't a full break, urging Mr. Ford to step aside, and some Conservatives still laboured on Tuesday to avoid speaking Mr. Ford's name while saying they don't condone drugs or drunk driving. Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney, however, stepped out of the pack to say he "personally" believes that Mr. Ford has brought dishonour to his office and "he should step aside and stop dragging the City of Toronto through this terrible embarrassment."

But the opposition parties are betting Mr. Ford's troubles can still hurt the Tories, and working to underline their ties. On Tuesday, the Liberals did it by listing Conservatives who donated money to Rob Ford, and vice versa.

Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner read a statement before Question Period in which he identified them. Four other MPs donated money to Mr. Ford in the 2010 election year: Labour Minister Kellie Leitch; Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver; junior minister for sport Bal Gosal; and Willowdale MP Chungsen Leung. Over the years, Mr. Ford has donated money to Government House Leader Peter Van Loan, Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino and two other Toronto Conservative MPs: Bernard Trottier and Joe Daniel.

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In fact, the Liberals have put together a spreadsheet of dozens of donations to Mr. Ford from Conservatives – MPs, candidates, and aides like PMO staffer Alykhan Velshi – as well as donations Mr. Ford made to Tories. In one case, Mr. Ford gave $500 to a federal Liberal during the 2012 Toronto-Danforth by-election, when he gave the same sum to the Conservative candidate.

What does it show? The donations to and from the Tories came before the crack-smoking revelations. Highlighting them was, Mr. Cuzner said in the Commons, a demonstration that Mr. Ford is "one of them."

Mr. Ford certainly has friends in the Conservative Party – aside from the political friendship of Mr. Harper (who took him fishing), Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is a close personal friend who flew to Chicago in February with the mayor and his brother for a weekend getaway. Mr. Flaherty choked up recently when asked about Mr. Ford's problems. In a CBC interview Monday, the mayor and his brother, city Councillor Doug Ford, said Mr. Flaherty was the only politician who supported them in their early days – and Doug Ford even said it was Mr. Flaherty's emotion on TV that jarred his brother into changing his ways.

Mr. Flaherty didn't say much more on Tuesday, but did say Rob Ford is still a friend. "Yes, of course he's my friend. You don't have a friend one day, and not a friend the next day. What kind of a person is that?"

Is that enough? NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair insisted it's not – and said Mr. Ford's Conservative friends should be telling him to step down. "Instead of seeing people emote about Rob Ford and saying what a good friend he is and talking about his family, I think that his friends and family should start talking to him," he said.

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

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