The three leading mayoral candidates squared-off Monday evening in a debate that repeatedly returned to the question of whether or not Toronto is a “great” city.

While the night’s event covered a wide range of issues from transit, green space and bike lanes, to public housing and policing policy, the unexpected focus among the candidates — John Tory, Doug Ford and Olivia Chow — on the best way describe the city began early.

In his opening comments, front runner Tory touted his platform, particularly his SmartTrack transit strategy and his “One Toronto” plan to better unite the amalgamated municipalities, as ways to transform Toronto from a “really good” city to a “great one.”

Doug Ford, Tory’s primary rival according to the most recent polling data, jumped on Tory’s comment immediately when it was his turn to speak, alluding to a number of global studies that have ranked Toronto among the most desirable cities to live in.

“We live in a great city,” said Ford. “It’s proven we live in a great city. Matter of fact, we live in the greatest city in the world … We’re ranked number one in the entire world as the most tax-competitive market; number one in the world to work; number two in the world to live.”

Speaking with reporters after the 90-minute debate, Tory said that while he believes Toronto is “really, really good,” there are too many unresolved issues facing the city for him to publicly declare it great.

Olivia Chow on the campaign trail

Asked about her message to her campaign staff as she finds herself trailing in the polls, Olivia Chow said the polls go "up and down" but she is connecting with voters. (CBC)

He listed isolated neighbours, high youth unemployment and deficient public housing as outstanding problems that previous mayors, particularly Rob Ford, have failed to address.

“I don’t think we can proclaim this a truly great city … great to me is a descriptive that I would apply to a city that has better handled these problems,” Tory said.

In a politically surprising move, Olivia Chow sided with Tory, asking if many of the children who go to school hungry or live in decaying public housing units would agree with Ford’s assertion.

Aside from semantic arguments, Monday’s debate touched on ten “big ideas” submitted by the public and curated by the Toronto Star over the course of nearly 10 months. It was sponsored by the newspaper and the Martin Prosperity Institute and held at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School.

Throughout the debate, Tory focused on his so-called “One Toronto” initiative, which he said is intended to “end the divisiveness” between the downtown core and the suburbs and “end the chaos at city hall.”

Ford dedicated much of allotted time accusing the front runner Tory of flip-flopping on issues like tax hikes and road tolls to fund to his expansive transit plan, and at one alleging that Tory “will say anything to get elected.”

'The only poll that counts is Oct. 27'

Ford and Chow both campaigned in the Jane Street and Finch Avenue area earlier Monday and downplayed polling data that places Tory firmly in the lead heading into next week’s election.

Doug Ford

When speaking to reporters on Monday, Doug Ford reiterated the fact that "the only poll that matters" is the one taken when voters head to the polls on Election Day. (CBC)

"The only poll that counts is Oct. 27 and the people will speak loud and clear," Ford said.

Chow said the polls go "up and down," but she maintains she is connecting with voters.

Also on Monday, the city revealed that more than 161,000 voters took the opportunity to cast a ballot during the advance voting phase, representing about 1 in 10 of the estimated 1.6 million eligible electors in the Toronto election.