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Karen Stintz, (left to right) John Tory, Olivia Chow, David Soknacki and Rob Ford shake hands before the first Toronto mayoral debate in Toronto on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan DenetteNathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Days away from Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's return to municipal politics, a rival campaign's polling data suggest he has a difficult road to re-election.

According to a recent survey of 750 Torontonians commissioned by John Tory's campaign, Mr. Ford is sitting in third with only 20 per cent of the decided vote. Meanwhile, Olivia Chow and Mr. Tory are locked in a virtual tie with 36 and 35 per cent respectively.

Mr. Tory's campaign agreed to release its internal numbers after being asked to comment on a Monday poll from Forum Research, which put Mr. Ford in second place with 27 per cent of the vote, Ms. Chow in first at 34 and Mr. Tory trailing in third with 24. (A Forum survey done in early June revealed a different landscape, with Mr. Ford at 20, Ms. Chow at 38 and Mr. Tory with 28.) The numbers left many wondering if Mr. Ford might be capable of a comeback. He will return to the race Monday after taking two months off for addiction treatment.

Ms. Chow's camp declined to reveal its data and would not say whether they believed the Forum numbers to be accurate.

"We're not discussing our internal strategic decision making, but repeatedly, people have said Rob Ford can't win. They said it in 2010, they said it after every revelation and our position from day 1 has been that Rob Ford is a formidable opponent who should not be underestimated, and if you don't want him as mayor you should vote for the candidate who does not share his values and can beat him," said Jamey Heath, Ms. Chow's communications director.

Mr. Tory's campaign, naturally, has a different take.

"The Chow campaign needs Ford in the race," said strategist Nick Kouvalis. "People are with her because they see her as the only one who can beat Ford – not because they actually want her to be mayor. Once people realize John Tory can win, he becomes the anti-Ford and the anti-Chow."

Mr. Kouvalis's firm, Campaign Research, conducted its poll over six days concluding Tuesday. It was a live agent survey that evenly targeted Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough and Toronto/East York. Each call lasted about 30 minutes and touched on a range of topics. (Forum's numbers were collected on Monday night using an automated push-button method.)

Mr. Kouvalis agreed to release a handful of the survey's findings, which he said did not directly relate to strategy. If Mr. Tory's data are correct, public transit will decide the election this fall.

Respondents were asked to comment on "some of the important issues you think need to be addressed in this city." A total of 62 per cent mentioned public transit; 23 per cent highlighted infrastructure; 21 per cent said traffic congestion; and 18 per cent identified leadership as an issue. Seniors, the environment, crime, daycare, hydro and garbage registered as important to only 2-3 per cent of those polled.

They also gauged brand recognition for Mr. Tory's Smart Track transit plan, which would use existing GO Transit lines to relieve the strain on the Yonge-University loop. The results showed 29 per cent of respondents knew about it and associated it with Mr. Tory. However, Mr. Ford is still leading on the transit file, with 51 per cent of those polled saying they were familiar with his vision.

Finally, the survey revealed an interesting story playing out in the inner suburbs. Ms. Chow is leading in Scarborough with 34 per cent (this is Mr. Ford's strongest area with 25), while Mr. Tory holds a commanding lead in North York with 45 per cent. Mr. Tory and Ms. Chow are running neck and neck in Etobicoke at 36 and 38 (Mr. Ford is at 23), but Ms. Chow rules the downtown with 43 per cent, according to the poll. Because of the smaller sample sizes, the margin of error is around 7.5 per cent for each borough.

Councillor Karen Stintz and former councillor David Soknacki finished with only 4 and 2 per cent, overall.

Polling numbers are often adjusted to reflect statistical realities around age and gender on the ground. If a survey captures too many women, for example, or too many suburban voters, it could skew the results. Mr. Kouvalis agreed to release his unweighted numbers in the candidate horse race. Before any adjustments, Mr. Tory had 33 per cent, Ms. Chow 32, Mr. Ford 17. A total of 10 per cent were undecided.

The overall results have a margin of error of 3.7 per cent, 19 times out of 20.