It has been a great week for John Tory, the former business executive and provincial Conservative leader who is trying to tip Rob Ford from the mayor's chair.
First an opinion poll for The Globe and Mail and CTV News showed that, with the support of 42 per cent of voters, he held a considerable lead over both Mr. Ford (28 per cent) and Olivia Chow (26 per cent) going into the home stretch of the months-long campaign. Then a big player in provincial politics, Liberal cabinet minister Brad Duguid, put party differences aside and heartily endorsed him for mayor. Finally, on Thursday, he put in an authoritative performance in the first major debate since Labour Day, when campaigning starts to go into high gear and voters start paying closer attention.
The question is whether Mr. Tory can sustain the momentum, live down his reputation as a vacillating leader who often blows his best chances, and finally come out a winner on Oct. 27.
For now, things are looking good for the man who has staked so much on his second bid for mayor. He was the clear winner in Thursday's debate, hosted by The Globe and the Toronto Region Board of Trade. He got in the best shots and was quickest on his feet. He came across as sure of himself, in command of the issues and – a novelty for a guy who often seems like a bit of a dry stick – even funny.
When Mr. Ford said his enemies keep spreading rumour and innuendo about him, Mr. Tory said: "You keep providing them material."
When Mr. Ford said he was a silent partner in the Ford family labelling firm, Mr. Tory shot back: "That'd be a first." Even the mayor got a laugh out of that.
When the mayor asserted he was fixing the crumbling Gardiner Expressway ("It's done"), Mr. Tory said: "You think half the time because you say something, that means it's true." The crowd loved it.
The mayor got some laughs, too, but the audience was laughing at him, not with him when he insisted that the provincial government would work with him if he was re-elected.
After the debate was over, the mayor said he expected nothing different from the "elitist crowd" at the downtown Hilton hotel. Still, it's never a good thing for a campaigning politician when an audience laughs in his face.
For Ms. Chow, the problem was different. The crowd wasn't laughing with her or at her. It wasn't reacting at all. What should have been applause lines were met mostly with silence. Her flat, stilted performance only served to confirm the impression that her campaign is stalled and that she is failing to connect with voters.
Mr. Tory, by contrast, managed to deepen the impression that he is in the driver's seat. He held up a map of his SmartTrack transit plan, which his team says has helped him surge in the polls. He talked about bridging the gap between suburbs and downtown. He talked about the importance of sticking with a plan to build a Scarborough subway. Even considering that this was a friendly, business audience, he handled himself with the assurance of a man who is leading the pack.
The problem with being front-runner, of course, is that you start to get more scrutiny, and there is much that needs scrutiny in the Tory platform, especially on the biggest issue of the campaign: transit. His rivals went after him over SmartTrack, his plan to build a "surface subway" on GO rail lines at no cost to property tax payers. Ms. Chow, in one of her best moments, said there was no chance he could raise the money required through his chosen method: tax-increment financing. Mr. Tory batted such questions aside, asserting again he could get his 22-station system done in an ambitious seven years.
It will get harder to duck if he continues to lead the race. But that is a problem any campaign would be happy to have. After a week like he has just had, Mr. Tory could afford to say, as he did to Mr. Ford, "bring it on."