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Doug Ford, centre, is pushed to answer a question on whether he would march in annual Pride parades by fellow candidates John Tory, right, and Olivia Chow during a mayoral debate in Toronto on Tuesday.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Doug Ford has become the second candidate for Toronto mayor in as many days to announce he's changing his strategy on debates, saying he won't show up for any that charge admission.

The new approach was made public Friday less than an hour before a lunch-hour faceoff before a business crowd organized by the Empire Club and follows an announcement Thursday by front runner candidate John Tory that he was thinking twice about attending debates that did not include Mr. Ford as well as his other main rival, Olivia Chow.

In issuing his last-minute cancellation, Mr. Ford said he decided to back out after learning of the event's $800-a-table price tag.

"I am campaigning to be the Mayor of all people, not the Mayor of the privileged few," said Mr. Ford in a statement, which also announced that instead of debating he would be "canvassing and connecting with real people at their doors."

The move is the latest effort by Mr. Ford – himself a successful business owner – to continue the populist image established by his brother, Mayor Rob Ford, and to portray Mr. Tory as out of touch with the average voter. Mr. Ford, who stepped in as a last-minute substituted for his ailing brother, has five weeks before election day to try to close Mr. Tory's sizable lead and is making the former provincial PC leader's lack of experience in municipal politics and his blue-chip background the target of his attacks.

A new on-line opinion poll, conducted this week – after Mr. Ford's campaigning began in earnest – shows that Mr. Tory continues to hold a significant lead, with the support of 48 per cent of decided voters, and Mr. Ford and Ms. Chow tied at 26 per cent. The Ipsos Reid poll of 1,252 Torontonians found one in 10 remain undecided. It has an accuracy rate of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Mr. Tory and Ms. Chow responded to Friday's last-minute cancellation by pointing out the Etobicoke councillor's spotty attendance record for votes at city council, and said his decision to skip debates was just more of the same.

"This is a guy that didn't show ‎up for half the council votes in the last year," scoffed Mr. Tory, who characterized Mr. Ford's explanation for skipping the event as "lame."

"I think he just decided that he was afraid to debate. He's a chicken – Colonel Sanders should be looking for him," he said.

Ms. Chow said she was surprised by the cancellation. "That's the way he operates," she said.

Earlier in the day, her campaign slammed both Mr. Tory and Mr. Ford for backing out of debates with little notice, saying it showed disrespect for organizers.

Empire Club president Andrea Wood said was "disappointed" at Mr. Ford's last-minute cancellation, adding that she only found out about 20 minutes before the lunch began.

"The club is 101 years old, a not-for-profit, has hosted every mayor of Toronto including Rob Ford in 2010, so this comes as a surprise to us," she said. She also added that, because the organization is not-for-profit, an admission fee is necessary to cover costs.

The debate also was livestreamed on the Internet and broadcast live on cable television.

Later in the day, Mr. Ford held a news conference on a suburban street in the northwest section of the city to defend his decision.

"My friends in this neighbourhood and neighbourhoods across this whole city can't afford $800 a table, can't afford to take three hours off work," he said. "I represent the common folk."

He characterized the Empire Club – a speakers' series that plays host to business and political leaders, including his brother – as "elitist," and dismissed a comparison between Friday's debate and fundraisers the Fords have held in the past that have included ticket costs of several hundred dollars. "You're trying to compare apples and oranges. Fundraisers are common in all campaigns. Everyone's allowed to come," he said.

He added that at his fundraisers, "we don't have a door excluding people like the Empire Club does" – despite the fact that the organization's events are open to the public.