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Toronto Battle has begun for ‘soft’ supporters in Ford Nation

Mayor Rob Ford, arrives at the elections office at city hall to file papers to officially enter the 2014 mayoral race in Toronto, Ontario, Thursday January 2, 2014.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

In a mayoral election that may well be a referendum on Rob Ford's behaviour, strategists for would-be challengers are thinking carefully about how to appeal to one key demographic: the 47 per cent of voters who marked ballots for him in 2010.

An Ipsos-Reid poll, taken before the ice storm, suggested that 39 per cent of Torontonians would consider voting for Mr. Ford again in 2014.

One question for the political strategists is how to appeal to Ford supporters who are considered "soft" – who may look to another candidate in October. It's a demographic that could become key to success on a crowded ballot that likely will include TTC chair and Councillor Karen Stintz, former councillor David Soknacki and others.

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Despite the fact that two of the perceived front-runners, John Tory and Olivia Chow, have not confirmed they will enter the race, large organizations of campaigners are already in place. They have been been working for weeks on everything from social-media strategies to policy positions, as well as preparing to raise the $1.5-million to $2-million needed to mount a serious campaign. Before Christmas Mr. Tory, when not hosting his CFRB talk radio show, kept a heavy schedule of public events, including an appearance at a pub night organized by supporters and campaigners in Yorkville.

Bob Richardson, a connected Liberal and a senior organizer behind Mr. Tory's unofficial campaign, sums up his candidate's potential positioning in the race in an interview with a simple mantra: "Fiscal responsibility without the freak show."

However, John Laschinger, a veteran campaign strategist expected to work on Ms. Chow's bid, said it will be important for candidates seeking votes from former Ford supporters not to "rub their noses in it."

Mr. Laschinger, who engineered David Miller's mayoral campaigns, estimates Mr. Ford's core support at around 30 per cent of the electorate, but only two-thirds are diehards who will back him to the end. The remaining third – 10 percentage points – of the mayor's support could shift to another candidate. But appealing to them will mean sounding positively Fordist, he said, promising small government and low taxes and projecting a looking-out-for-the-little-guy populism.

"If they [voters] can find a home with their values, they are open to going," Mr. Laschinger said. "So you don't want to run a campaign where … you put the gravy train back on the rails again. And you don't want to criticize that group of people for having those values just because they happen to identify at that point with Rob Ford."

Mr. Laschinger, who worked for candidate Joe Pantalone in 2010, argues that Ms. Chow can grab "a fair share" of that, despite her obvious political differences with Mr. Ford. He points to polls showing her doing well in the suburbs, and says a large proportion of Mr. Pantalone's vote actually shifted to Mr. Ford in the dying days of the last campaign, despite the fact Mr. Pantalone was a New Democrat. Both men, he said, had a populist appeal.

Mr. Laschinger insists Ms. Chow, a former city councillor and the widow of former NDP leader Jack Layton, can easily defend herself against attacks labelling her a tax-and-spend downtown socialist: "She just looks Ford in the eye and says I'm not the daughter of a millionaire. I'm the daughter of an immigrant family that came here and had to watch every penny and I won't take any frugality lessons from you Mr. Ford, you the son of a millionaire."

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Whoever enters the race, it is difficult to predict whether voters will be in the mood for a 10-month marathon debate about the future of their city in the wake of what seemed at times to be a daily HBO-network drama coming out of city hall.

Candidates next fall should heed the danger of an electorate that could be suffering from "city hall fatigue," warns Rob Silver, a Liberal strategist not linked to any of the mayoral campaigns.

The cure, he says, is to present voters with a candidate who can be convincingly boring or, more charitably, "mature," – something Mr. Tory might be good at but a role that Mr. Silver predicts might prove challenging for the more "polarizing" Ms. Chow.

"Whoever is going to be successful, I think it is going to be [someone who says], 'I am serious, I will do the things you care about,' but most importantly, 'I am just going to get out of your face and calm this down'."

Mr. Tory may actually have this attribute in spades. However, Mr. Tory may fail to attract former Ford voters who dislike him for his undeniable status as downtown Toronto elite. While it is extremely early to put any stock in polling, several have him starting from behind Ms. Chow. Mr. Laschinger even suggests his entry into the race divides the vote and helps Mr. Ford.

But John Capobianco, a senior vice-president with Fleishman-Hillard and Conservative Ford supporter who has now jumped ship to work on Mr. Tory's still-unofficial campaign, insists Mr. Tory can attract voters from left, right and centre unlike anyone else. Mr. Capobianco is skeptical of polls showing Ms. Chow with more support than her rivals out of the gate.

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"It just seems to be a disconnect between what the polls are saying and what we are hearing on the ground," said Mr. Capobianco, who describes the Ford family as long-time friends. "… No one has even filed papers. And quite frankly, the minute they do, and the minute they start talking about issues, things change."


Running for mayor

Mayor Rob Ford: "People are going to have a choice of who they trust with their hard-earned tax dollars on Oct. 27 and before that, at advance polls…I'll go 105 debates. You know what? Let's have 200 debates this time. I encourage everyone to run. Whoever's out there, come down run for school trustee, run for councillor, and run for mayor. I will go toe to toe with anybody. All the time. I'll do three debates like I did with Mr. [George] Smitherman. I just can't wait. I can't wait to get my record on the floor and let people decide for themselves."

Councillor Karen Stintz, Toronto Transit Commission chair: "I hope people go to the polls not out of anger, but out of hope for what Toronto could be. Because they went to the polls I think in 2010 out of anger at what they perceived to be the failings of city hall. My hope for the next 10 months is to create a vision and a platform that resonates with people, and that has them being excited again about their city."

Former councillor David Soknacki: "We're in it for the long haul. Between now and October, we'll be chipping away at the issues. And I don't know if my competitors want to go where I am going to go. Because if people are sitting on comfortable leads, I don't know how much risk they are going to take."

Considering running

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NDP MP Olivia Chow: "I am considering running for mayor. Our city deserves much better than Rob Ford. However, I have not made a decision and continue to work hard standing up to Stephen Harper."

Former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader John Tory: "Whatever I end up doing, I do feel very strongly that we can't carry on with the current arrangements – too many bridges have been burned and it makes it just too difficult for Toronto to be its best and to be the best."

Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong: "The public's looking for a different type of leadership that's not going to be on Jon Stewart every night but that's going to run a credible, fiscally conservative agenda. ... What I do know is we can't go back to David Miller, and that's what Olivia Chow represents."

Councillor Shelley Carroll: "People love [Rob Ford], and I daresay for the rest of his life, people will cheer him when he shows up at a football game. But they don't want him to run their city any more ... By September, I don't think he will have numbers strong enough to be included in any televised debate."

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