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One year ago, the crowd jamming Tim Hortons famous original restaurant in Hamilton's east end was so huge that it spilled onto the sidewalk.

The leading lady of Canada's Liberal Party was about to launch her run for the leadership. And although it seemed a doomed effort, Sheila Copps could fairly claim the hometown rank-and-file still belonged to her.

Not so, any more.

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The dozen patrons sipping coffee here last Sunday morning are no longer sure their MP for 16 years will be their MP again. Some say she's the victim of a Paul Martin-inspired effort to get rid of a potential pain in his side. Others say it's time for Ms. Copps to make way for new blood.

"It's a squeeze play. No doubt about it," said one man who also said he attended elementary school at the same time as Ms. Copps. "But maybe it's time for a change."

Her battle for her political life has become an ugly street fight that has split the community and her support. Business, union and ethnic leaders who once backed her have moved to support newly influential Transport Minister Tony Valeri.

They will square off for the nomination in the newly redistricted riding of Hamilton East-Stoney Creek, which comprises part of Ms. Copps's former riding and part of Mr. Valeri's. The winner will be whoever signs up the most Liberal members and brings them to a nomination meeting.

That fight prompted Ms. Copps to suggest this week she might run for the NDP. And she accused the Prime Minister's team of stacking the race.

Mr. Martin denied that he is trying to squeeze her out.

"That's just absolutely not true," he told reporters after a meeting with farmers in Regina.

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The battle between Ms. Copps and Mr. Valeri is purely the result of changes to riding boundaries, he said. "This is really unfortunate the way that this has arisen. Nobody wanted it to happen. We all certainly wish that it did not happen. But in fact, in the case of Tony Valeri's riding, 53 per cent of his old riding is in the new riding."

Mr. Martin added: "This is a battle that is taking place locally. This is not a battle that is in any way mandated by anybody else outside the riding." Asked whether he would keep his distance from the issue, even if it meant Ms. Copps's defection to the NDP, Mr. Martin shrugged.

"I wish it wasn't happening, but I'm not interfering in any of these battles between incumbents," he said.

Mr. Martin also defended his party's efforts to recruit women. He has previously suggested that half the Liberal candidates in the coming election should be women, but some members of his own party have questioned his commitment to that goal.

"We've got the largest number of women in cabinet that has ever been in Canadian history," he said. "We are out recruiting women right across the country, and we want women in winnable ridings."

The public, meanwhile, is left to judge Liberals loudly fighting Liberals for the spoils of office. It is, in effect, the clashing sound of one group of politicians trying to replace another as dominant powers. This year, it is happening in Hamilton and across the country.

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The Prime Minister's team argues the nomination battles ensure democratic renewal. Critics charge the leadership has opened the door to Martin supporters seeking to oust incumbents who were not pro-Martin activists, while loyalists get help.

Mr. Martin's organizers say the process is fair, but some acknowledge privately not all races are the same. In British Columbia, MP Joe Peschisolido is losing a battle for the Richmond riding nomination to former MP Raymond Chan, and the Paul Martin team will stay out. But MP Hedy Fry, who also fears a challenge, will get help because of her early and vocal support, a Martin insider said.

In Quebec's Saint-Lambert riding, MP Yolande Thibeault, who last year complained that prime minister Jean Chrétien should not be pushed out, is facing a challenge from Carole Marcil, former press secretary for Longueuil mayor Jacques Olivier, a personal friend of Mr. Martin's.

In the suburbs of Hamilton, maverick Ancaster-Dundas-Aldershot MP John Bryden, who supported John Manley for the leadership, says the Hamilton "Liberal establishment" is shopping for a candidate, because Mr. Bryden was not "a Martin spear-carrier."

One person told him she was recruited to challenge him, and although she has withdrawn, he believes the organizers against him are seeking another candidate.

"She actually came to me and said -- and these were her words -- that she had received an offer that she couldn't refuse, and that was unlimited support to fight me for the nomination."

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In Hamilton East-Stoney Creek, the Copps-Valeri battle has been marked by changed allegiances, verbal sniping and hurt feelings. "It's typical Hamilton politics," one long-time Liberal said. "It's cutthroat."

Union leader Joseph Mancinelli prefers to view it as a changing of the guard.

Mr. Mancinelli, president of the 3,000-strong local of the Laborers' International Union of North America, was a Copps supporter in the past, but is backing Mr. Valeri now.

He says Ms. Copps was a politician for a different time. The city needs to develop its inner core.

"Tony Valeri, like Paul Martin, understands these issues," Mr. Mancinelli said. "Sheila, on the other hand -- even though she's been a very loud and effective voice in Canadian politics -- is not part of that team. She's not part of the Martin team and does not share in those same philosophies."

Mr. Bryden said the Copps-Valeri nomination battle is largely about who will be Hamilton's political boss. Liberal politicians have long been judged on the spoils they bring back to Hamilton.

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"It's the mentality. The role of the politicians is to get money from Ottawa for Hamilton," he said. "Regionally, you're looking at a situation where Sheila is perceived as not being able to deliver the goods any more, so all the emphasis goes onto Tony."

Ironically, Ms. Copps was long viewed as clever at providing for her fief, bringing bike races, tourist attractions and other plums.

Now, Mr. Valeri argues his position in cabinet and its most powerful committees mean he can do more for Hamilton.

"How is the city better positioned going forward?" he said in an interview. "Is it better positioned with someone who's been given the opportunity by the Prime Minister to be in cabinet and to be on those committees?"

Ms. Copps has accused Mr. Valeri of trying to drive her out of politics by refusing to follow the trend of moving eastward like other MPs. Mr. Valeri said he does not want to go to the Niagara West-Glanbrook riding, even though he lives there, because most of it is outside Hamilton.

Pat Jobling, a 60-year-old educational assistant, said she took out a membership last month to support Ms. Copps.

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"I do not think she deserves this," she said. "I know she's ruffled feathers along the way, but she's herself."

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