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In Canada on September 6, 2010 at 07:57
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Was Rob Ford underestimated? ‘A big resounding yes’

September 05, 2010

Linda Diebel

Don’t panic, folks, it’s only Labour Day.

So goes the public line from Rob Ford’s opponents: Nobody pays attention to the mayoral race in Toronto until after the last holiday of the summer. Besides, Ford may be leading the polls but, remember, David Miller was trailing at this point in 2003, and won.

Behind the scenes, however, some of the best political brains in the city are reeling over the phenomenon known as Ford. They’re the big guns, the campaign honchos who are expected to know the competition and understand the public’s mood.

Not this time. Too many appear to have been caught napping, only to awaken in a strange new world.

In this world, Ford is anywhere from six to 11 percentage points ahead of his nearest competitor, former provincial Liberal minister George Smitherman. Behind them, in various orders depending on the poll, are Rocco Rossi, one-time director for the federal Liberals, veteran councillor Joe Pantalone and businesswoman Sarah Thomson.

“Ford’s real victory has been getting them to play at his level,” said a political observer. “Rocco and George in particular seem obsessed with taking Ford down, and it’s not working for them.”

The Star canvassed political backrooms (with many speaking off the record) and found enormous frustration over Ford. One insider said he and his colleagues are still flummoxed by the recent week in August, in which Ford had his mug shot from a 1999 Florida drunk-driving arrest on the front page, and made what some candidates thought were campaign-ending comments about stopping immigration to Toronto. (In 2003, he called for a “refugee freeze” for the city.)

“He had a week from hell. The guy should have been in free fall. We would have been in free fall with any one of those things,” sputtered a usually calm individual. “I’ve never seen anything like it. . . Did we underestimate him? A big resounding yes.”

They’re dealing with the ultimate Teflon candidate.

“It’s peculiar. You work your butt off, you’ve got a team, the money’s in the bank — the war chest is good — and you’re waiting for the worm to turn just a little bit. But nothing happens,” said Bruce Davis, Smitherman’s campaign manager.

“I can’t recall any competitor ever having their mug shot on the front page of the newspaper — and none of it makes a difference.”

Davis maintains Smitherman will beat Ford. “I’m convinced people are tolerating Rob Ford — his antics, his misbehaviour, his hurtfulness — because they’re desperate to clean up the finances at city hall. But Rob Ford won’t be able to do that.”

And yet, while insisting the Smitherman camp “gets” the public’s anger about perceived waste and mismanagement at city hall — the crux of the Ford message — Davis said his candidate won’t roll out his fiscal plan until later this month.

Perhaps there’s a problem right there. Ford’s opponents still operate under old campaign rules — i.e., big announcements after Labour Day — while the whole universe is changing around them. It’s like the axiom, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making plans.

Myer Siemiatycki, politics professor at Ryerson, suspects Smitherman may regret having waited to outline his position on some issues. It’s the thinking of a front-running team — any position you carve out could potentially rob you of support — when Smitherman is no longer front-runner.

“Of course, we’ll see whether the dynamic changes,” cautioned Siemiatycki. “We’re still two months away.”

So far, there’s been no sign the political crowd is ready to stop underestimating Ford. In late July, the Star reported that John Tory was once again considering entering the race. Among reasons cited was the notion that former Conservative premier Mike Harris could just whip over to the Ford HQ and get him to drop out.

Huh?! Who dreamed that one up?

Nobody, according to a plugged-in source, was more flabbergasted than Harris himself. He knows Ford wouldn’t bow out. (Not that it matters in the 2010 mayor’s race, but Ford’s father, Doug, sat as a backbencher in the first Harris government, and not a chosen cabinet minister.)

It might also be a good idea to stop giving Ford political freebies. His people rejoiced at news this summer that Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals were pulling out all the stops to help their man, Smitherman.

Doug Ford, the candidate’s brother and campaign manager, said their polls “shot up” overnight on that one. “It’s the same sentiment in Ontario and across North America,” he said. “The grassroots are fed up” with taxes and government spending.

“They all underestimated the capacity of the Ford family team,” Doug Ford told the Star.

“We’re running circles around the Warren Kinsellas and John Laschingers,” he says, referring to political players: Kinsella, who recently volunteered for Rossi, and Laschinger, Joe Pantalone’s campaign manager.

“We’re laughing,” said Ford. “We figure there’s another one on board (Kinsella) and we’ve got to knock him off, too. It’s like knocking flies off . . . well, you know what.”

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