By Cameron French
TORONTO, April 17 (Reuters) - Toronto Mayor Rob Ford launched his re-election campaign on Friday, acknowledging the crack-cocaine scandal that has made him a topic of water cooler talk across North America, but also happy to trade on his notoriety.
Ford, whose authority was reduced last year by a city council fed up with his antics, took over a massive convention center in Toronto's west end for the event, hawking bobble-head dolls to raise funds ahead of the election on Oct. 27.
First elected mayor in 2010 on a cost-cutting platform, Ford has become indisputably the most famous leader in the city's history, and continues to poll relatively strongly in spite of a scandal that prompted staffers to desert him and has cost him nearly all of his allies on city council.
"There have been some rocky moments over the past year. I have experienced how none of us go through life without making mistakes," he told a crowd of more than a thousand supporters, before launching into a speech trumpeting his efforts to "cut the gravy" at city hall.
"Four years ago I stood before you with this pledge. I pledged to respect taxpayers. I pledged to stop the gravy train. I pledged to stop elites who would take money out of your pocket and put it in theirs," he said, surrounded on a stage by his wife, two children, siblings and mother.
"I stand before you four years later and say I have kept those promises."
At the front of the room a red fire truck was emblazoned with Ford's oft-repeated claim that he has saved taxpayers C$1 billion ($909.96 million).
Ford first hit international headlines last May when the Toronto Star newspaper and website Gawker both reported the existence of a video of Ford smoking crack cocaine.
In November, he admitted doing smoking the drug "while in a drunken stupor," while police revealed around that time they had been watching Ford for months after his name surfaced in a drug investigation.
STRONG IN THE SUBURBS
Police have not charged Ford with anything, but his public image has continued to take hits, as videos have surfaced of the mayor ranting drunkenly about various subjects, including the chief of police.
He has also admitted to buying illegal drugs and driving after drinking, but has said he is not addicted to drugs or alcohol. He typically brushes off questions about the scandal as "old news."
Despite the scandal and the measures council took to transfer much of his authority to Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly, recent poll numbers show Ford to be in a solid second place in the race for mayor.
A Forum Research poll this week showed Ford with 27 percent support, trailing the 34 percent for left-leaning candidate Olivia Chow, and ahead of the 24 percent support for John Tory, who like Ford, is more right-leaning.
Polls have shown Ford's support, while weak in central Toronto, is still strong in the suburban boroughs of Etobicoke and Scarborough.
And while Ford has painted much of the media attention as attacks, he has also embraced the publicity, accepting interviews with U.S. networks in the wake of the scandal and appearing recently on late night talk show "Jimmy Kimmel Live!"
Despite facing ridicule for much of the interview, he later invited Kimmel on his YouTube "Ford Nation" show, and mentioned him in his speech.
"Sorry Jimmy. Toronto is better than L.A.," he said.
At the launch, hundreds lined up to purchase bobble head dolls in the mayor's likeness, priced at C$30 to C$100 and with the option of getting one in the black suit and red tie he wore on the Kimmel show, much to the amusement of the host.
Frank Anane, 34, munching complimentary potato chips and holding a stack of "Ford Nation" bumper stickers, said he supported Ford because he keeps his promises.
"Whatever he says he's going to do, he does. Most of them are liars. He's the only one of them that does what he says," he said.
Asked about Ford's admitted drug use, Anane shrugged.
"As long as he's not selling crack." ($1 = 1.0989 Canadian dollars) (Editing by Eric Walsh)