It would be unwise to draw conclusions about the likely outcome of the race for mayor of Toronto on the basis of one debate, especially a debate fully seven months from the election date. Still, the 90-minute exchange among the five leading candidates left some strong impressions.
The first is that, despite everything, Rob Ford is still a strong contender. The second is that Olivia Chow is his most formidable challenger. The third is that John Tory is in trouble. The fourth is that Karen Stintz and David Soknacki are already looking like also-rans, far behind the other three in performance and impact.
Take Mr. Ford first. He has always been good in events such as this. In the first debate of his wildly successful 2010 run for mayor, he shone in the opening debate, surprising those who had written off the cranky city councillor as a no-hoper. He speaks forcefully and with conviction, sticking doggedly to his message.
In Wednesday's debate, he pitched himself as a good manager who hammered the city's finances into shape and watched every dime. Much of it was bunk, like his claim to have saved a billion dollars (his accounting is flawed), to have avoided strikes (library workers walked out), or to be a heroic subway builder (the planned eastward extension of the Bloor-Danforth line is years away and the two other suburban lines he boasts about exist only in his mind).
Still, it was tactically smart to plant his flag on his "proven track record" as a hawk-eyed guardian of public money. "I've found the efficiencies you're talking about," he told Mr. Tory, when the former provincial Conservative leader said he, too, was going to fight waste at city hall. "You know where I stand," Mr. Ford said. "You know I don't flip-flop."
Questioned about his disgraceful private behaviour, he deftly brushed the issue aside by calling it an old story his rivals were trying to "rewind, rewind, rewind."
Ms. Chow, to her credit, didn't let him get away so easily. She said that "we've had it with the scandals" and the "crazy lying." She said he was an international embarrassment and called him on his "billion-dollar lie." After he and others went after her as a spendthrift NDPer, she performed a deft deflection of her own, reminding viewers that she came to Toronto as a struggling immigrant from Hong Kong, so "I know the value of a dollar." She told Mr. Ford to his face: "You need to pack up that nonsense you're talking about."
Mr. Ford's opponents are in a fight among themselves to emerge as the leading anti-Ford candidate, and Ms. Chow has done the best job of it in the early weeks. Mr. Tory, by contrast, comes across as all the things he is – smart, decent, sincere, informed. He said he would build a new subway downtown. He said he would get traffic moving. He said he would take the city not right, like Mr. Ford, or left, like Ms. Chow, but forward. He too denounced Mr. Ford for damaging the city's reputation. But, except for a couple of bursts, he failed to show the fire that is sometimes lacking in his political persona.
With the big three battling it out, Mr. Soknacki and Ms. Stintz had a hard time making much of an impression. Mr. Soknacki, a successful businessman and former city budget chief, came across as the geeky accountant in the room, the guy who would bring rational policy-making back to a divided city council. Ms. Stintz, the former chair of the Toronto Transit Commission, told viewers that "I love this city" and "I will continue to fight for it," but she has yet to make it clear what her brand is in a competitive marketplace.
At this early point, we are left with three real contenders for the mayor's chair, with the early going suggesting a head-to-head battle between Olivia Chow and Rob Ford.
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