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Toronto mayoral candidate Doug Ford shakes hands with candidate John Tory (R) before a municipal debate for the upcoming city election in Toronto.

MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

John Tory says he is having second thoughts about attending all of the mayoral debates leading up to next month's election – a move that left rival candidate Olivia Chow accusing the front-runner of "hiding."

With five weeks left in the closely watched race and at least 17 scheduled debates remaining, front-runner Mr. Tory said in a statement Wednesday that he has decided "to review on a case-by-case basis whether to attend debates that don't exclusively feature the three main contenders."

The move by Mr. Tory to focus on debates that include Doug Ford – who jumped into the race just two weeks ago to replace ailing brother Rob Ford – comes after Mr. Ford skipped the majority of debates in his first two weeks as a candidate.

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As a result, several events ended up being cancelled, or changed last-minute into question-and-answer discussions rather than head-to-head debates.

Mr. Tory said in the statement that "the unexplained absence of Doug Ford from most of these debates, and, at others, last-minute rules changes, including additions and deletions to the debating roster, raise questions about the productiveness of these discussions."

He argued that Mr. Ford's absence gives him an advantage, because debate preparation "requires the diversion of significant time and resources from other campaign priorities."

Mr. Ford, who held a news conference to repeat a plan first announced by his brother to dedicate money from the sale of city property to subways, said it is up to Mr. Tory which debates to attend. Mr. Ford has yet to indicate which debates he will attend beyond an event hosted by the Empire Club of Canada on Friday afternoon.

But Ms. Chow, who is trailing in third place according to a Nanos Research poll released this week, slammed Mr. Tory, and accused him of taking a page out of the "Ford playbook".

"Mr. Tory stop hiding, picking and choosing who you will speak to," she said.

Ms. Chow, who has tried to use one-on-one debates with Mr. Tory to question him on his transit policy and shore up her own support, said debates are important to establish where candidates stand on pressing issues.

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"It is not up to John Tory to decide who will be the mayor of this city. It is up to the good people of this city. It would be extremely arrogant on his part to decide who should be his competitors," she said.

In response, Mr. Tory said Thursday afternoon: "I debated her last night. I'm debating her tonight. I'm debating her tomorrow" – and pointed to the 30 debates he's attended so far.

Mr. Tory also shot back by announcing an endorsement from David Chen, the owner of the Lucky Moose Food Market in Toronto's Chinatown and a former supporter of Ms. Chow's.

Mr. Chen made headlines in 2009 after chasing down a shoplifter from his store. His subsequent arrest for assault and forcible confinement drew outrage from the local communities – leading politicians, including Ms. Chow, to champion his cause. He was later acquitted.

Ms. Chow has frequently cited her work with Mr. Chen as a key accomplishment during her time as an MP.

But on Thursday, Mr. Chen said that, though he's been asked to help the Chow campaign, he instead chose to back Mr. Tory.

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He said that Chinatown merchants are facing many issues – including parking enforcement and property taxes – that he believes Mr. Tory can best address.

"We're looking for a good person who can make the city nice," he said. "We think that he can do a good job."

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