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The annual event known as Ford Fest is a mix of political rally, fun fair and revival meeting and, in that sense, this year's was much like those before.

Ford Nation true believers waved their flags, pulled on Stop the Tax Grab T-shirts and chanted "Ford more years." Doug Ford bounced to the Stones' Start Me Up and turned on his big white smile for hundreds of cell-phone pix. Families lined up for free burgers and candy floss. Kids rode a carousel and boarded the Go-Gator alligator ride. The mayor and his brother revved up the crowd like a pair of tag-teaming Bible Belt preachers.

But there was something different in the air this time around: a sense of finality. Rob Ford is sick with cancer and out of the race of mayor. His brother Doug is way behind frontrunner John Tory in the latest polls, trailing him even in the Fords' home turf of Etobicoke, where Saturday's rally was held next to a vast suburban parking lot.

Barring a miracle to compare with the loaves and fish, voters will bring an end to the weird, embarrassing, fascinating, event-crammed reign of the brothers Ford in just four weeks. The lights will go out, the circus tent will fold up and the big, noisy show will be over.

None of that seemed to dampen the mood of the faithful on this clear, perfect September evening. They crowded around an open tent for a glimpse of Doug, who reached out to grasp outreached palms in his meaty hand. They bopped to the rockin' tunes of Jenny James, the Ford-friendly songstress whose immortal tune Mayor Ford (The World Will Remember) dubbed him "Mayor Ford, the taxpayer's Lord." They held up hand-made signs with slogans such as "Toronto cannot af-Ford not to have a Ford for mayor."

Say what you like about Mr. Ford's followers -- the way they swallow all his guff without question, the way they close their eyes to all his faults, the way they blame the mean old media for everything that has gone wrong -- you have to admire their faith.

When an announcer finally proclaimed that "the mayor is going to be here any minute now," they gave a great cheer and huddled around the stage. The world's most infamous mayor did not disappoint. His voice was hoarse after a round of chemotherapy, but he spoke with his usual gusto as he listed all the marvels he had accomplished and urged the people to make his brother "the next mayor of Toronto."

He spoke about his illness, too. He told the crowd he had vanquished the "man in the mirror" that was his addicted self. "I took that guy out the back and I took care of him." All was good, he said, till the doctor told him: 'You know that guy from the back that you took care of, ah, a few months ago. We got someone bigger and badder than that.' I said, 'Who is that guy?' He said, 'Cancer.' I said, "Really eh? You know what, go and tell cancer that I'm going to put him where I put that guy in the mirror.'

The crowd whooped. The whooped again when he told them to ignore the discouraging opinion polls. "I don't listen to any polls. I don't listen to any media, that's for sure." They whooped again when he praised their loyalty. "Ford nation has never wavered one iota. Not ever, ever." he told them. "I love ya, Ford Nation, I love ya."

It was classic Rob. Putting aside all the exaggerations and falsehoods -- "We have built subways" -- this man knows how to rouse an audience. His brother's bombastic but forgettable speech did not hold a candle to it.

By the time they finished speaking, the twilight had turned to dark. The lights on the Go-Gator ride flashed in the night. The carousel emptied. Car lights in the parking lot blinked on. Ford Nation drifted off, still hopeful despite everything.

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