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Toronto’s mayoral candidates faced off for the first time since Rob Ford’s return from rehab, with a raucous debate in Scarborough where they clashed repeatedly over the issue of transit.

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

Toronto's mayoral candidates faced off for the first time since Rob Ford's return from rehab, with a raucous debate in Scarborough where they clashed repeatedly over the issue of transit.

The five main candidates – Mr. Ford, Olivia Chow, John Tory, David Soknacki and Karen Stintz – debated issues Tuesday from jobs and taxes to Toronto Community Housing, but it was over a planned Scarborough subway extension where they were the most combative. And though Mr. Ford only returned to city hall in late June after a two-month absence to attend rehab, his rivals pulled no punches in attacking his record, and calling his mayoralty "a failure."

"I am the subway mayor. Everyone knows it," boomed Mr. Ford to cheers and jeers.

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The energetic crowd, which appeared deeply divided, cheered for all five candidates – but it was Mr. Ford who provoked the biggest response, including noisy interjections and heckling. Those divisions spilled outside as well, where Ford supporters and protesters loudly confronted each other.

"I built the subway in Scarborough," Mr. Ford said at the start of the debate. "And we're going to continue building subways along Finch, the downtown relief line and Sheppard."

Mr. Tory, who also supports building the proposed Scarborough subway extension, noted that the plan has already secured funding agreements with the provincial and federal governments. "I would not rip up an existing agreement," he said.

But Ms. Chow, who instead supports building light-rail transit in Scarborough, slammed the mayor and Mr. Tory's plans. "Above ground means we can build it four years faster, four more stops," she said.

In response, Mr. Ford quipped that Ms. Chow's proposed "above-ground subway" was "the biggest oxymoron that I've heard in my life."

Mr. Ford's rivals also attacked his track record, with Mr. Tory pointing out that reports of overspending at the Sony Centre and Union Station, all happened on his watch.

"We know what you were doing, and it wasn't managing the taxpayers' money," Mr. Tory said.

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And Ms. Stintz, who answered almost every question with a response about transit, said, "Rob, he'll tell you that he's got things done. I'll tell you he's not the only one who's got a track record around here."

Tuesday evening's debate, hosted by the Canadian Tamil Congress, was the first since the mayor left city hall in a cloud of alcohol and drug scandals. Controversy continued to follow the mayor even during his stint in rehab, when a Muskoka woman was arrested behind the wheel of his SUV for impaired driving.

But the scandals were barely mentioned during Tuesday's debate. It was Ms. Chow who broke the nearly hour-and-a-half silence on the drug and alcohol issue during a question on the land-transfer tax.

"Mr. Ford, even when you're clean and sober, you can't stick to the truth."

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