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Doug Ford, centre, is pushed to answer a question as whether he will march in annual Pride parade by fellow candidates John Tory, right, and Olivia Chow as he takes part in a Toronto Mayoral Debate in Toronto on Tuesday, September 23, 2014.

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The race to be Toronto's next mayor broke into a verbal brawl as Doug Ford joined John Tory and Olivia Chow in a debate that marked a new phase in the campaign now that the mayor's brother has joined the fray.

Mr. Ford – who less than two weeks ago stepped in to replace his ailing brother Rob Ford on the Oct. 27 ballot – took on front-runner Mr. Tory and former NDP MP Ms. Chow in high-charged exchange Tuesday night that pitted the three remaining major candidates against each other for the first time.

Mr. Ford, with his booming voice and his affection for a folksy turn of phrase, turned his sights on Mr. Tory from the get-go, painting him as an elitist who does not know how city hall works. Mr. Tory returned fire, noting that Mr. Ford was effectively a "co-mayor" while his brother was in the mayor's office, but failed to implement the cost-cutting policies and other measures he is now proposing.

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The last-minute switch by the Ford brothers had many wondering whether the elder brother would run a full campaign or be able to hold his own in a debate.

Mr. Ford, seated at the centre of a table in a high school auditorium, between Ms. Chow and Mr. Tory, made it clear he had entered the race in earnest and that Mr. Tory – given a commanding 22-point lead in an opinion poll this week – was his main target.

"I know you are used to getting everything handed to you on a silver platter," Mr. Ford said at one point, noting that, if elected, Mr. Tory would be the first mayor in recent memory who did not first sit on council.

"You know John you have had a pretty easy ride, but the ride is going to get a little bumpier. You'd better do up your seat belt," he quipped later.

In one heated exchange, Mr. Ford grilled Mr. Tory on the workings of city hall. Mr. Ford pulled out his cellphone and handed it to Mr. Tory, suggesting he could "call the mayor" to get the answer to the question.

It was a theatrical performance and the Ford Nation followers who packed the seats at York Memorial Collegiate in the city's west end cheered him on.

Mr. Tory swung back, noting the Etobicoke councillor's poor attendance record and alluding to the controversies that crippled his brother's administration in the past 18 months.

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"It's too bad you ran out of gas," Mr. Tory said as Mr. Ford rhymed off the accomplishments of the past four years, a reference to the mayor's inability to work with the council that took away most of his power.

Asked how he would work with others, Mr. Tory said one thing he would not do is call councillors "monkeys" – a term Mr. Ford once used to describe his council colleagues.

As to his lack of city hall experience, Mr. Tory said after the debate he would be "a breath of fresh air."

Through most of it, Ms. Chow sat on the other side of their exchanges, attempting with limited success to break in and raise issues about Mr. Tory's SmartTrack above-ground transit plan.

Mr. Tory "will say anything to get elected," she said, asking him to explain how his rail plan would negotiate a sharp turn at an intersection close to where the debate took place.

To his charges that "taxes will go through the roof" if she is mayor, she accused him of scare-mongering.

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Mr. Ford was on the ropes once, with both Mr. Tory and Ms. Chow demanding he say whether he would march in the Pride parade if elected as mayor. "Yes or No," Ms. Chow and Mr. Tory took turns demanding. Mr. Ford walked a careful line, saying he had donated $3,500 to the event. "I have no problem with the Pride parade," he said.

A raucous crowd packed the auditorium and, even before the candidates took the stage, members of the audience shouted at one another and a woman who arrived with a drawing of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum – names some have used to describe the mayor and his brother – had it ripped from her hands and crumpled it up.

The debate was halted at one point while police removed a woman who stood up in the audience shouting: "He goes to the family cottage during the Pride parade, that's why we love him. We need Ford Nation."

Mr. Ford joins the race with less than five weeks until election day. A poll commissioned by The Globe and Mail and CTV and released Monday shows him in second place, but well behind Mr. Tory who has the support of close to half of decided voters, followed by Mr. Ford at 27 per cent and Ms. Chow at 24 per cent.

The poll shows that Mr. Ford has held onto his brother's loyal supporters in Ford Nation. The goal for him now is to build that support in just a few weeks – a job that will be a challenge with more than half of respondents to the poll indicating they have a negative impression of both him and his brother.

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