Step right up and get your tickets, folks. You've never witnessed anything quite like this.
See the world's most notorious mayor act like nothing ever happened and pretend he is qualified for a second term as chief magistrate of Canada's biggest city. See a man who has never held municipal office say he can fix the city's congestion problem in the blink of an eye. Listen as a woman tells you the touching story of how she came here as an immigrant – an immigrant, I tell you! In Toronto! – and learned to ride the TTC.
Yes, it promises to be quite a show all right. The 2014 campaign for mayor features three of the biggest names ever to vie for the office. Olivia Chow is well known to the city as a former city councillor, local MP and widow of Jack Layton. John Tory ran for mayor before, in 2003, and led the provincial Conservative party. Rob Ford has been on Jimmy Kimmel.
Any one of them could take the prize on Oct. 27. The crucial home stretch of the long campaign begins on Tuesday. Recent polls show a close race, with Mr. Tory surging ahead but both Mr. Ford and Ms. Chow well within striking distance. Even businessman David Soknacki, the former city budget chief who has yet to poll above single digits, has a faint chance. Rankings often swing wildly in final weeks, when election teams roll out their ad campaigns, candidates debate till they drop and voters start to pay close attention to the whole gaudy festival.
Who will come out on top? Each of the top three comes with strengths and weaknesses.
Rob Ford could benefit from his very notoriety. Nooooo problem with name recognition for him. Not only does everyone know him; many voters identify with him. His regular-guy authenticity still has undeniable appeal. Here is a guy who can make headlines just by talking about his trash-bin face-offs with raccoons (they're getting "braver and braver").
Mr. Ford has a clear political identity, too – the champion of the taxpayer and slayer of the gravy train – that still resonates with voters who aren't fussy about the facts. He is a strong campaigner who does surprisingly well in debates. He has been unusually with-it and coherent in recent appearances. If he can stay on the straight and narrow for the next weeks then many voters will forgive him his trespasses.
On the other hand, he is Rob Ford. Anything can happen. Even if it doesn't and he avoids steak restaurants and basements till Oct. 27, some voters will find it hard to forgive his drug use, his months of refusing to own up to his drug use, his sketchy associates and all of the rest of the Ford follies.
John Tory? He ran an impressive campaign in 2003. He is intelligent and articulate. He has a long record of public service and civic engagement. He has experience in both business and politics. He comes with a killer résumé and a legion of high-level backers.
On the other hand, he is John Tory, with a reputation as a wavering leader who, despite all his admirable qualities, can never quite close the deal. His main pitch to voters – that he can build a congestion-busting transit line in seven years at no extra cost to property tax payers through the miracle of tax-increment financing – sounds a lot like old snake oil in new bottles.
Olivia Chow? She is a veteran of city politics. She knows the issues. She has a strong political and personal identity, laid out in a recent memoir. She has a record of fighting for the downtrodden. She, too, has a strong team of backers and the support of the city's well-organized left.
On the other hand, she is Olivia Chow. After so many years on the scene, she is almost too familiar. Many voters, even on the left, find her grating. Her story of coming to Toronto from Hong Kong as a struggling immigrant in her teens sounds stale in a city chock-full of newcomers. She has yet to grab on to a single galvanizing issue. Her campaign badly needs a jolt of energy.
No candidate is ever perfect, of course. This year's crop is better than most. Remember that in the last round, in 2010, voters faced a choice among a weak candidate of the left in Joe Pantalone, a disappointing candidate of the centre in George Smitherman and an out-there candidate of the populist right in the man himself.
This time, the big three are closely matched and ready to rock. The next two feverish months will see them go toe to toe on the hustings, on the airwaves and the debating studio. A great deal is at stake for each of them.
Can Rob Ford put his little problem behind him, astound the world and win another term? Or will he be relegated to a gag line in the history books? Can John Tory erase the loser label from his forehead and win the title he first sought more than a decade ago? Or is his career in politics at an end? Can Olivia Chow raise her game, show she is more than a droning ex-city councillor and prove she has the stuff to be mayor of a dynamic modern city?
We will find out soon enough. Stick around, people. It promises to be a corker.