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Olivia Chow mocks John Tory with a transit plan drawn on a napkin during a mayoral debate focused on the arts in Toronto on Monday.Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

John Tory called it a stunt.

Olivia Chow called it art.

For more than 90 minutes on Monday, candidates seeking to be Toronto's next mayor debated the arts and arts funding. Then Ms. Chow, with her campaign flagging, Mr. Tory's lead widening and Doug Ford holding his own, pulled out her napkin drawings and started talking transit.

"I am a creative person," she declared, offering the audience at Toronto's TIFF Lightbox paper serviettes so they could create an alternative to Mr. Tory's SmartTrack light-rail proposal like her mock "back of the napkin" plan.

Morgan Baskin, the 19-year-old fringe candidate who took part in the debate, put her head in her hands.

Mr. Tory brushed off the incident, one of the only contentious moments in what he characterized as a "civilized debate."

"Well look, I guess if you have to pull these kinds of stunts you can do as you wish," he told reporters after the lunchtime event. "I thought it was more important to make a statement about arts and the role they do play."

There was none of the drama of last week as Mr. Ford joined Ms. Chow and Mr. Tory for only the second time in a debate – this one sponsored by ArtsVote Toronto. The audience in the packed theatre offered polite applause only. The only jeers came when Mr. Ford suggested the city had been broke when his brother, Rob Ford, became mayor and righted its course.

The three main contenders, joined by fringe candidates lawyer Ari Goldkind and Ms. Baskin, agreed on the importance of the arts and took turns praising the role it plays in the city's life and economic development. There were no knockout lines, no tense moments and no policy announcements. And in an election where transit and gridlock are shaping up to be the ballot box issue in the Oct. 27 vote, there was very little mention of the topic until Ms. Chow pulled out her napkins.

Mr. Ford, a late entry to the race as substitute for his ailing brother, did not raise his voice or go on the attack, as he did at his debate debut last week. Instead, he spoke about the economic benefits of the arts, repeatedly singing the praises of the music scene in Austin, Tex., and vowing to bring a "world-class" music festival to the city, if elected. He issued an invitation to his house to see his art collection as proof of his credentials as an art lover.

Mr. Tory said if elected he would look at multiyear funding for arts organizations and stressed his own involvement in the arts community.

Ms. Chow repeated her pledge to start a public arts foundation that could leverage private donations.

Asked for their most "transformative art experience," Ms. Chow said it was the recent Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. "Art is politics and politics is art," she said. Mr. Tory said it was Nuit Blanche and Mr. Ford said it was murals he help facilitate in Rexdale.

"I think everyone sometimes needs to be vocal in a debate and sometimes they don't need to be vocal," Mr. Ford told reporters after the debate, explaining his switch in tone.

The subdued exchange comes the same day as a new poll that underlies yet again that Mr. Tory is the man to beat.

The latest numbers, from Mainstreet Technologies, found Mr. Tory had the support of 42 per cent of decided voters, with Mr. Ford at 34 per cent and Ms. Chow at 24 per cent. The survey of 2,409 respondents has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.99 per cent.