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Mayoral candidate Rob Ford at the Pug Awards held at the AGO in June.Della Rollins

Immigration has emerged as an incendiary issue in the mayoral race after front-runner Rob Ford suggested that in a "perfect world" Toronto would keep its population at current levels.

In a televised debate Tuesday night, the Etobicoke councillor said: "We can't even deal with the 2.5 million people in this city. I think it's more important that we take care of the people now before we start bringing in more."

Mr. Ford's opponents pounced on the statement, with some demanding he apologize, quit the race or both.

But after a morning in which George Smitherman, Joe Pantalone, Rocco Rossi and Sarah Thomson flocked to Nathan Phillips Square to denounce the Etobicoke councillor to anyone with a microphone, Mr. Ford told reporters he stands by his comments.

"It's political games, that's what it is," he said. "What I said, and I stick to my words, is that we can't take care of 2.5 million in this city. How are we going to deal with another million people?"

Mr. Ford said repeatedly Wednesday that Toronto's official plan - the master guide for the city's growth - forecasts an additional one million people will flood the city in the next decade.

But the document projects that Toronto's population will be 2.855 million in 2011 and 2.915 million in 2021, an increase of only 60,000 people in 10 years.

Most of the region's growth is expected in the 905 suburbs, something Mr. Ford denied as he struggled to clarify his position on immigration.

The Ford campaign issued a news release Wednesday saying that, "suggestions [Mr. Ford]wanted to shut down immigration were nothing but spin and political gamesmanship."

Either way, the candidate acknowledged the municipal government has no power to control who moves to Toronto.

"I'm going to play the cards that I'm dealt and you know what? More people will come. But in a perfect world, what I'm saying is that I would like to deal with the 2.5 million first," he said.

Mr. Ford has a long history of controversial utterances.

As a councillor, he said only gays and needle users are likely to get AIDS, that hard-working "Orientals" are "taking over," and that although his heart bleeds when cyclists are killed "it's their own fault at the end of the day."

Despite this, the most recent large published polls have put him either in the lead or in a tie with Mr. Smitherman.

Will his immigration comments be any different? "I would think that they should hurt Rob Ford," said Myer Siemiatycki, a municipal politics expert at Ryerson University. "If Toronto has a brand and a niche in the world, it's as a city of immigrants."

The controversy prompted Mr. Rossi to organize a small anti-Ford rally at Nathan Phillips Square Wednesday afternoon.

Earlier, Mr. Ford and Mr. Rossi got into a verbal tussle in front of TV cameras over the issue.

"This is a political game," Mr. Ford said before storming out of the shot.

"Are you going to run for mayor or aren't you?" Mr. Rossi called after him. "You're running from the issue Rob!"

The other candidates were no less harsh in their attacks on Mr. Ford.

"It's one thing to say disgusting things about Asians, about gay people, about cyclists … when you're just a councillor," Mr. Smitherman said.

"But when you seek to elevate yourself to the position of leading the sixth largest government in the country and the most diverse city on the face of the earth, then you gotta elevate your game."

Mr. Pantalone, the deputy mayor, said: "I strongly believe that such a statement has no place in a place like Toronto and that Torontonians will neither forgive or forget that kind of statement unless it's rectified."

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