It may be that the four Toronto mayoral candidates sharing the stage with Rob Ford Wednesday night just wanted to appear statesmanlike and not sully themselves with the details of the scandal that's made the chief magistrate an international sensation. 

But there must have been some satisfaction among the four when, nearly 75 minutes into the 90-minute first televised mayoral candidate debate, CityNews reporter Cynthia Mulligan bluntly raised the issue with the mayor.

"Mr. Ford, everyone has skirted around quite delicately the issue of the scandal," Mulligan said. "I’m going to give you a chance to address it and speak to it first hand.

"You have admitted to smoking crack cocaine. There’s a police investigation underway into you as we speak.You have said in the past you’re not perfect, but people do expect a lot from the chief magistrate. How can voters trust good judgment in you, going forward for the next four years, and can you address this scandal head on?"

Up to that point, the candidates seemed to cautiously avoid mentioning any specifics about the scandal. Former NDP MP Olivia Chow, seen as one of the top contenders, had been the most aggressive on the issue, saying it was time to "take down the circus tent," that the mayor had made the city an "international embarrassment," and that Ford was hardly a role model for her grandchildren.

Mostly silent on Ford's troubles

The other three candidates were mostly silent on Ford’s personal troubles.

Former Ontario PC leader John Tory, also considered a front-runner of the race, seemed to avoid the subject — that is, until he took offence at a comment by Ford in which the mayor said Tory, who had failed in his bid to become Ontario premier in 2007, had "fallen flat on [his] face" in provincial politics.

A visibly angry Tory then lectured Ford: "Maybe you would like to give us a minute on the respect for the office you hold, where you have let the taxpayers down of this city very badly, you’ve let the citizens of this city down, you’ve let the reputation of this city down; maybe you would like to address that."

The debate itself was messy — a free-for-all fuelled by a laissez-faire style of moderating. (“Oh my god that hurt," Ryerson University political science professor Myer Siemiatycki said immediately after watching the televised melee.)

Toronto Mayoral Debate 20140326

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. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

And there were none of the "knockout punches" the media so covet. Still, Ford held his own against the attacks by the other four.

(Late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, who had Ford on his show earlier this month and watched the debate, tweeted that Ford "is JFK compared to some of these candidates.")

Ford kept to his one-note message of taxpayer savings, conveying it in a direct and compelling way, said Siemiatycki.

“If he can convince Torontonians that the only thing they need in a mayor is someone who is going to be vigilant on taxes and then he can go the next step of convincing them that he is that person, he has a real shot at re-election.”

And when it came to the issue about his crack smoking, Ford smiled, prepared for the question he's faced for months — one he hopes that voters are tired of hearing. 

"People have heard the story. It’s rewind, rewind, rewind," Ford said before launching into his familiar defence that he’s made mistakes and he’s not perfect.

Lob the grenade

That the question was left for Mulligan to ask may not be surprising, as candidates may have feared going after the mayor personally, not wanting to appear excessively divisive, shrill, antagonistic or aggressive, Siemiatycki said.

"I think in a way each one of them may want the other one to lob the grenade as ground cover for them to run through," he said.

But with the election nearly seven months away, this will change, Siemiatycki said.

"I think maybe one of the takeaways from this debate will be that there’s a cost of not doing it, because if you don’t challenge the mayor’s personal behaviour, he gets a lot of air time [to repeat] what he regards as his great achievements and it’s difficult to challenge and try to argue against it.

"So I think some of them may be thinking if we don’t go after character, then we’re leaving too much space for him to go on and on about how wonderful he is, and maybe it’s time to remind people there are some aspects of the mayor that aren’t too wonderful."