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How Doug Ford gets to play by his own set of rules in Ontario PC leadership race

"I live with five women at home," Doug Ford said this week. "I can handle Caroline Mulroney and Christine Elliott."

It was a dismissal of his competition that, coming from another man seeking to lead a political party, might have brought a hasty end to his candidacy – especially with that party hyper-sensitive to how it is perceived by women voters, after its last leader was brought down by sexual misconduct allegations.

But if his assessment of the other two candidates had any consequences for Mr. Ford's prospects, they were difficult to detect. As of the end of the week, he was still going strong, given a fair chance by Ontario Progressive Conservative insiders of winning their truncated contest to replace Patrick Brown.

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Mr. Ford may be following the lead of other politicians in recent years – his own late brother and the current U.S. President being two obvious examples – who have had the luxury of not being held to the same expectations as most of their colleagues. And that could make for an especially telling contrast if he winds up leading his party into this spring's general election, against Kathleen Wynne.

Political strategists sometimes refer to a problem for a party or candidate being "baked in." What they mean is that it's already so much a part of how they're perceived, any fresh display of it won't significantly affect that perception.

Usually, it's specific to a certain issue or trait. But for Doug Ford, the definition of "baked in" might be as expansive as for Rob Ford or for Donald Trump during their ascents to office – covering such a vast array of behaviours that it would require something truly earth-shattering to shake the faith of anyone currently inclined to support him.

Among the things we already know about Mr. Ford: He was, as revealed by this newspaper, a drug dealer in the 1980s. He was the lead defender, by some accounts an enabler, of his troubled brother. As a one-term city councillor, he went to war with Toronto's police chief because of investigations into his brother, and got in a nasty public fight with the managers of a home for developmentally disabled kids in his ward. He is at once unusually right-wing – opposing social spending many other conservatives support – and prone to championing grandiose projects, such as construction of a giant Ferris wheel on Toronto's waterfront. He often presents, to many eyes at least, as a bully.

It's improbable most of his backers are completely unaware of all this. More likely is that they choose to embrace or dismiss it as unfair coverage by a hostile press, because he offers something more important to them – a sense of righteous anger about the way government is run, which more polished candidates can't as easily tap into.

There may not be enough people of that mindset in the PCs' current membership, or easily recruited into it during the brief sign-up period before voting begins, to give Mr. Ford the leadership. And if he wins, there are so many people who dislike him – a recent Innovative Research poll of Ontarians showing him viewed negatively by nearly half of respondents, positively by only about one in five – that he could breathe fresh life into Ms. Wynne's prospects. Although more pulled-together than Rob Ford was, he can't be sold the same way to skeptics as a well-meaning goofball.

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But Doug's well-attended and boisterous leadership campaign launch and other "Ford Nation" events since Rob passed, not to mention the competitive 34 per cent of Toronto's mayoral vote he pulled after stepping in for his ailing brother in 2014, show he commands passionate loyalty among a significant chunk of the population. More so than his fellow leadership candidates and the Premier he is seeking to replace – who has personal polling numbers just as negative, but seemingly fewer fans rallying in her corner.

That someone like Ms. Wynne, professional and with no known history of personal misbehaviour, could conceivably be knocked off by someone like Mr. Ford could on its face be flabbergasting. But the expectations game can be a funny thing.

Speak anecdotally to Ontarians about why they've turned so harshly on their current Premier, or insiders from various parties about what opinion research suggests, and a common response (aside from fatigue with the government she inherited and anger over high energy prices and cost of living) is disappointment that she is not who she seemed when she took office.

The specific examples that get cited – privatization of an energy utility, flip-flopping on road tolls, a controversy over by-election manoeuvring that resulted in acquittal of two prominent Liberals on Elections Act charges – do not stand out as great betrayals of our time.

But after replacing Dalton McGuinty, Ms. Wynne presented herself as a different sort of politician – more principled, less cynical. And her fallbacks to political expediency and ideological flexibility contributed to a sense among many people who gave her a majority government four years ago that they were sold a bill of goods.

Doug Ford, because of what has been obvious about him all along, never had the same potential as Ms. Wynne – or many other mainstream politicians who come along – to appeal to a very wide swath of the population. But he's also continuing to deliver what anyone who bought what he is selling bargained for.

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It's hard to imagine what it would take at this point for his supporters to feel betrayed. The casually sexist dismissal of his intra-party rivals isn't it..

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