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Toronto mayoral candidates John Tory, left, and Rob Ford exchange barbs during Thursday’s debate.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

John Tory, emboldened by a 14-point lead in the polls, played to a Bay Street crowd as he mocked Mayor Rob Ford during a lunch-time debate and worked to establish his position as the candidate to beat in the race to be Toronto's next leader.

The face-off Thursday, played out before a packed ballroom of what Mr. Ford later described as "elites," was the first major test of the candidates since a poll by Nanos research showed Mr. Tory in the lead, followed by Mr. Ford and Olivia Chow, with David Soknacki a distant fourth. The debate, hosted by The Globe and Mail and Toronto Region Board of Trade, came as the campaign enters its final leg before the Oct. 27 vote.

Mr. Tory, as the front runner, also was the main target of Mr. Ford and Ms. Chow. Mr. Tory used that perch to continue to preach his SmartTrack plan for transit – a 53-kilometre, 22-stop network that would run on existing commuter rail tracks – and to land one-liners that left many in the audience laughing at Mr. Ford's expense.

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Mr. Ford returned fire by characterizing Mr. Tory as a "ditherer" and suggested he should be standing on his left side on the stage, along with Ms. Chow.

"They can laugh all they want. I've got a proven track record of success," Mr. Ford later told reporters.

During the debate, which focused on the economy, transit and jobs, Mr. Ford denied allegations of conflict of interest, saying that his family business "has not benefited one iota" from his role as chief magistrate.

After months of avoiding questions related to allegations that he improperly lobbied city staff on behalf of clients of his family business Deco Labels, Mr. Ford finally addressed the issue during the spirited debate. Mr. Ford dropped out of a number of other debates this week, instead choosing to focus on canvassing door-to-door.

"No one, but no one, can buy the Fords," Mr. Ford said of the alleged conflict.

"My conflict of interest is zero. You can listen to the innuendos and the rumours, folks, but the facts speak for themselves. Again, Deco Labels has not benefited once, not once, from any city business that we've done."

The debate throughout was dominated by Mr. Tory and Mr. Ford, who often spoke in raised voices and over one another – but it was Mr. Tory who appeared to have the support of the business-friendly crowd, leaving Mr. Ford at several points fending off attacks and staring up at the ceiling.

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After Mr. Ford described himself as a "silent partner" at Deco, Mr. Tory quipped: "That'd be a first."

Later, when Mr. Ford dismissed the conflict allegations once again, saying that "the rumours, innuendos, they don't stop," Mr. Tory said: "You keep providing them material."

When Mr. Ford protested, saying none of the reports has been true so far, Mr. Tory retorted, "A lot of it actually."

And after Mr. Ford claimed he'd "fixed" the Gardiner Expressway, Mr. Tory's remark that "you think half the time just because you say something, that makes it true," drew big laughs from the crowd.

Much of the debate focused on transit, which the Nanos poll identified this week as being a priority for the majority of Toronto residents in the election.

Ms. Chow took shots at Mr. Tory's $8-billion SmartTrack plan – which promises to electrify existing GO tracks in seven years– saying it would not address immediate needs, and that it depends on a "risky" financing scheme. Mr. Tory's plan relies on tax increment financing, which involves borrowing against future development that transit might spur.

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And Mr. Soknacki, who said he will reassess his candidacy early next week, accused Mr. Ford of having a subway plan – in which he promises to build $9-billion of underground transit without raising taxes – that relies on "fantasy money."

When asked about the alleged conflicts, Ms. Chow was also pointed in her criticism of Mr. Ford. "I believe that integrity is at the core of a leader – especially a job like the mayor's," she said.

The Globe has reported several incidents in which Mr. Ford and his brother, Councillor Doug Ford, helped to lobby city bureaucrats on behalf of clients of Deco.

Until Thursday, Mr. Ford had avoided questions about whether Deco benefited from these dealings, instead distancing himself from the company by saying he's not involved in the "day-to-day operations."

When Mr. Ford was asked whether he would meet with Toronto Police over an investigation targeting him – a request he has so far declined – he said: "Guys, those days are gone. I think you all know it, but you'll never admit it. So they can do whatever they want."

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