What a difference three months can make.
A few short weeks ago, our mayor had a swagger, a victor's aura. His team gloated that his endorsement of Stephen Harper had pushed the Conservatives over the top in a number of GTA ridings, endearing Rob Ford to the Prime Minister and burnishing his reputation as a political kingmaker.
His poll numbers hovered over 60-per-cent approval. Premier Dalton McGuinty granted his every request – from making the TTC an essential service to taking on Eglinton subway construction – careful not to cross the man who commanded the insurgent mob known as Ford Nation. The Prime Minister himself mused about a conservative triumvirate during a barbecue at the Ford family compound.
And now? The man whose clout was expected by some to tip the provincial race in favour of Tim Hudak is falling out of favour in Toronto while Premier Dalton McGuinty is edging upwards in polls, in part because he's equating Mr. Hudak with the increasingly unpopular Mr. Ford. Has the ace in the hole become an albatross?
"I don't think anyone wants an endorsement from Ford at this point," said Nelson Wiseman, professor of politics at the University of Toronto. "Ford Nation has become a little rump about the size of Gadhafi's remaining forces."
That's a slightly more colourful assessment of the sentiment reverberating throughout Tory and Liberal war-rooms for months. Polls suggest Torontonians are abandoning Mr. Hudak and the mayor simultaneously. A Forum Research poll released Wednesday showed the mayor's support had dropped by one-third since spring to 42 per cent. A second poll – albeit one of the telephone push-button variety – commissioned by CUPE and also released by Forum Research this week, surveyed 12,848 Torontonians and found only 27 per cent of respondents ready to vote for Mr. Ford if a municipal election were held tomorrow. Provincially, the Conservatives are sitting at third place and dropping in the GTA, with 21 per cent of voters supporting Mr. Hudak, according to Ipsos-Reid.
Liberals, eager to speed that decline, have tried to link Mr. Hudak with layoffs and service reductions being implemented at City Hall, drawing similarities between Mr. Hudak's railing against wasteful spending and high taxes and Mr. Ford's gravy-busting platform.
"If I were Ford's chief of staff right now, I would councel him not to endorse anyone," said a Conservative strategist who spoke on background. "He may be enticed to do so, but it is probably not wise for any involved."
Asked whether or not an endorsement from Mayor Ford would be a help or a hindrance, the Tory campaign declined comment.
All this is foiling Mayor Ford's plans to play powerbroker. In recent weeks, he has made a show of interviewing the three main candidates to get a sense of how their platforms might help Toronto. He even invited representatives from each party to his backyard barbecue – otherwise known as Ford Fest – where Mr. Hudak himself turned up to praise the mayor and his family. All signs pointed towards a splashy endorsement of the Conservatives a few days before the election, much the same approach he took in the federal race.
Even without the added complication of sliding support, the strategy seemed risky. Mayors in Ontario usually steer clear of provincial endorsements, careful not to poison relations with a level of government that exerts supreme control over cities.
"It's an absolutely critical relationship," said former mayor David Miller. "So many city programs either have provincial rules or rely on provincial funding."
During the 2007 provincial race, Mr. Miller made a point of not endorsing anyone, deciding rather to tell voters they should side with the candidate who put city issues such as transit, daycare, housing and uploading of social services at the forefront of their agenda. "We were remarkably successful with that approach," said Mr. Miller. "If I were mayor today, I'd take exactly the same approach."
And maybe Mr. Ford will do just that. He has the advantage of having a political double – his brother, Councillor Doug Ford – who can stump for Mr. Hudak in his absence.
"Rob and I have a wonderful relationship with Tim Hudak," said Doug Ford. "We will work with any government that gets elected, but I will be out there supporting Tim Hudak."
On the flip side, the mayor's shrunken approval rating is nothing to sniff at, especially if you're a provincial Conservative candidate facing a resurgent Liberal party.
Whether the Conservatives see the mayor as a liability is more a question of how they view their own standing in the GTA.
"The Conservatives have such a very steep hill to climb in Toronto that if they could get Ford's 40 per cent, that's very much worth having," said Myer Siemiatycki, a politics professor at Ryerson University. In the 2007 provincial campaign, the Tories only picked up one seat in the city of Toronto, in the Thornhill riding. "The extent to which Mr. Hudak continues to court Mayor Ford will be a reflection of how vulnerable or weak the Conservatives believe they are."
Members for Mr. Ford's office refused to speak on the record about any forthcoming endorsement. But one close adviser said that the mayor will likely come out supporting Mr. Hudak in the days before the election unless the Liberals have a clear lead.
The mayor's brother wouldn't venture quite that far. "I will say that our family has been Conservative for years," said Doug Ford. "We think the world of Tim Hudak."