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A public, personal, and direct skirmish broke out between Paul Martin and Allan Rock this week. But it would not have been the same without two backroom operatives.

Behind the loud clash of two ministers were two surrogates who defined much of the battle.

Karl Littler, Mr. Martin's organizational tactician, pushed membership rules that would slow the recruiting efforts of rivals. And when Mr. Rock responded with a communications strategy, his roar was amplified by communications adviser Warren Kinsella.

Neither man is the top aide in either leadership campaign. But both are tough-minded senior-level operatives whose approach has raised complaints of heavy-handed machinations from opposing camps.

Mr. Littler, known for his steely grasp of party rules and organization, is blamed by Rock supporters for a heavy-handed twisting -- to Mr. Martin's advantage -- of a compromise on Ontario party membership rules that was struck two weeks before.

What really rankles about Mr. Rock's reaction, Mr. Martin's supporters say, is that Mr. Kinsella echoed him with rougher charges that the rule changes smacked of "racial profiling."

One senior Liberal who is in neither camp said both moves crossed the line, but he expressed respect for their respective talents as organizer and communicator.

Mr. Littler's organizing tactics are "between brilliant and Machiavellian," he said. "Warren is a hardball mouth."

Both men would probably not be offended by those remarks. Friends and associates say they take pride in getting the job done. In his recent book, Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics,Mr. Kinsella even took a certain pride in a nickname he earned from opponents: The Prince of Darkness.

However, the political jobs the two do are very different.

Mr. Littler is a classic backroomer, Mr. Martin's senior organizer in Ontario, where he keeps in touch with a list of Martin supporters among riding presidents, MPs, young Liberals, and other party officials.

The deal struck between supporters of Mr. Martin and of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had called for five membership forms to be given out at a time, rather than one, making recruitment by rivals a little easier. But Mr. Martin's supporters, rallied by Mr. Littler, added a caveat that the names of the new members had to be provided before the forms could be given out.

Mr. Rock's camp, outflanked in organization, responded with a communications strategy, attacking Mr. Martin's organizers. Mr. Rock himself went on the attack -- but it was Mr. Kinsella, a television-savvy lawyer who acts as a leadership adviser to Mr. Rock, who hit harder.

Creating obstacles to joining the party, he said, could make it harder for members of minority groups to join, he said, making the Rock response more explosive. The move, he told reporters, smacked of "racial profiling."

For Mr. Kinsella, who unlike Mr. Littler has a public profile as a television pundit, the explosive attacks through the news media fit the usual modus operandi.

"The rule is always to get tough, or get lost. Always," he wrote in Kicking Ass.

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