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Marcus Gee

Swarm of interest in Miller's job just the jolt T.O. needs Add to ...

Will anyone who doesn't want to run for mayor please put up his hand? It's just four days since David Miller dropped out, three months until the race to succeed him officially begins, and 14 months until the actual election, but already the contest is beginning to look like the set of a Cecil B. DeMille film.

At least seven of the 44 city councillors are thinking about a run: Denzil Minnan-Wong, Karen Stintz, Rob Ford, Joe Pantalone, Adam Giambrone, Giorgio Mammoliti and Michael Thompson. Two others are talked about as mayoral hopefuls: former journalist Adam Vaughan and budget chief Shelley Carroll.

Outside of council, Ontario Deputy Premier George Smitherman has made his craving for the Toronto job so plain that his boss, Premier Dalton McGuinty, may be forced to remove him from cabinet in the next few weeks to prevent a conflict of interest. Former Ontario Conservative leader John Tory has come as close as he can to declaring his candidacy without hiring a plane to write his name in the sky. Olivia Chow, the New Democratic MP from Toronto, won't rule herself out.

Even Glen Murray, the former mayor of Winnipeg -Winnipeg! - says he is "getting a lot of calls from people I respect" urging to him to run. Sure, he's a smart guy and he lives in the Big Smoke now, but isn't this getting a bit ridiculous?

To the contrary: The swarm of interest in Mr. Miller's job is great for Toronto. His sudden, unexpected decision not to run in next November's vote was the starting pistol for what should be a riveting, wide-open contest to lead the country's largest city. In a jaded place where less than 40 per cent of eligible residents bother to vote, it is just the kind of jolt we need.

The mayor's chain of office, it turns out, is one of the most sought-after bits of bling in political life. The mayor of Toronto gets to head Canada's sixth largest government, bigger than those of many provinces. Municipal amalgamation in 1998 put the mayor at the head of a metropolis of 2.6 million people. He is directly elected, too. Instead of coming to office because he leads a winning political party, like a premier or prime minister, he has his name on the ballot right across the city.

Mr. Miller clearly revels in the job, even if it ate into his family life. He gave it a national presence by championing the cause of Canadian cities. No wonder so many people want to inherit it.

With the incumbent departing, the office is very much up for grabs. Mr. Miller leaves no heir apparent. Mr. Smitherman looks like a strong candidate, with a history in city politics, high-level government experience, a forceful personality and the power to raise lots of money. But he's hardly a shoo-in. Stop people on the streets of Scarborough and I'll bet no more than one in five has even heard of him.

John Tory has an impressive résumé as a mayoral candidate in 2003 and Ontario Conservative leader from 2005 to 2007, but he has also a losing political record. Although no one doubts his sincerity or his energy, questions about his judgment remain.

Mr. Miller's decision to bow out has robbed both men of a punching bag. If they aren't running against him, what are they running for?

Mr. Miller has made it tough for his own supporters, too. If he had departed as a popular mayor, they could run on his record. Who now will want to say they will finish what he started?

For those on the right, on the other hand, the obvious course is to promise to clean up the mess that the big-spending Mr. Miller left behind. But push that line too hard and you could lose the votes of liberal downtown folk.

All of this points to a highly fluid race. It's the furthest thing imaginable from the gridlock of federal politics of the past few years. It's an anything-goes, let-a-hundred-flowers-bloom sort of campaign that could go any way.

Hang on to your hats. It should be a fascinating year.

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