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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford attends a mayoral candidates' debate on March 26, 2014.

MARK BLINCH/Reuters

Rob Ford came face to face for the first time with his four leading rivals in the race for Toronto mayor, managing to deflect talk of the drug use and behaviour that has catapulted him onto the international stage.

The 90-minute faceoff Wednesday evening gave voters a first glimpse of the five leading candidates – Karen Stintz, John Tory, Olivia Chow, David Soknacki and Mr. Ford. They talked about transit, the city's finances and leadership in scripted speeches and three-minute free-for-all sessions that had them trading one-liners and fighting for air time.

More striking than what was talked about was what wasn't: the drug scandal that has engulfed Toronto's leader for the past year.

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Canada's largest city is in the midst of an election battle like no other, with an incumbent the subject of an ongoing police investigation. Mr. Ford is refusing to answer questions about exactly what he was smoking in the video police say shows him inhaling vapour from a glass pipe. Even late-night television comic Jimmy Kimmel was live-tweeting comments during the debate.

It took more than an hour before the words "crack cocaine" were even mentioned, and even then it was uttered in a question to Mr. Ford by a journalist.

Asked how voters could trust his judgment given the investigation and his admission after months of denial that he smoked crack, Mr. Ford responded with an invitation to his campaign launch next month to get the answer directly from his supporters. "See who supports me and who doesn't," he shot back. "That will answer your question."

"People have heard this story. It's rewind, rewind, rewind," Mr. Ford said, telling the audience "I'm not perfect," before switching back to his fiscal track record.

Mr. Ford stuck to his talking points, listing his accomplishments in saving money – contracting out garbage, killing the vehicle registration tax, striking a labour deal. He is the only candidate, he said, "with a proven track record."

His rivals saved most of their questions for Mr. Ford, but also took shots at one another. Mr. Tory cast Ms. Chow as the "NDP candidate." Ms. Stintz said Toronto residents don't want to rehash the transit debate – a shot at both Mr. Soknacki and Ms. Chow who say they want a return to a light-rail line rather than a subway extension in Scarborough.

Mr. Ford took on Mr. Tory on his record when he was Ontario leader for the PC party. "John, you had your chance at the province. You fell flat on your face," he said.

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Mr. Ford's personal troubles were talked about indirectly by his opponents.

"You are embarrassing our city," Ms. Chow said at one point.

It is time for Toronto to "wake up from the nightmare," Mr. Soknacki declared.

Mr. Tory suggested Mr. Ford might "give us a minute on respect for the office" before admonishing him for letting Toronto taxpayers "down very badly."

When it all was over, the candidates defended their tactics, saying they hadn't pulled their punches.

"I was not at all nice," Ms. Chow told a crush of reporters. "I said that he needs to pack up his circus tent and that enough is enough. The city is tired of having this crazy ride and it's time for him to go." Mr. Tory said he thought it was unnecessary to mention the scandals because people are very familiar with them. "I don't need to repeat all the gory details for everybody to hear because I think they know it very well," he said.

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Mr. Tory said Toronto voters see what is happening and realize the city needs a new leader. "He seems to have run out of gas when it comes to working with anybody – city councillors, other governments, people won't even have their picture taken with him," he said.

"There's no news there, and that's not a policy," Ms. Stintz said on why she didn't mention the scandal.

The mayor's brother and campaign manager, Councillor Doug Ford, said voters are not interested in such talk. "The only people really interested in that are the media," he said in a television interview after the debate. "They keep rehashing this. We're going to stay with 'What have you done? What's your track record? And what are you going to do with the future?' "

When asked if he thought he'd won the debate, the mayor said "absolutely," adding that he "can't wait" for the many more to come.

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