Kellie Leitch first approached Nick Kouvalis last Christmas to tell him she was seriously considering a run for the leadership of the federal Conservative Party.
A friend for a decade, he told her he would help. The pugnacious political strategist became her campaign manager.
It was a big coup for Ms. Leitch, the first to join the race last April. The former junior cabinet minister in Stephen Harper's government is best known for her part in announcing the Conservatives' promise during last year's election campaign to create a tip line where people could report "barbaric cultural practices" – an announcement, but not an idea, she has since tearfully regretted.
Mr. Kouvalis, 41, has helped everyone from B.C. Premier Christy Clark to Toronto mayors – and former rivals – Rob Ford and John Tory get elected, albeit in different campaigns.
The Leitch campaign is Mr. Kouvalis's first serious foray into federal politics.
On his watch, the Ontario MP has emerged as the dominant voice in the Conservative leadership race, with members set to choose their new leader next May.
Ms. Leitch's campaign first grabbed headlines with an e-mail questionnaire sent to supporters that included a query on whether prospective immigrants should be screened for "anti-Canadian values." Ms. Leitch's subsequent push for a discussion about a "unified Canadian identity" – something her campaign has plotted for months – has forced candidates and fellow Conservatives to take sides on the issue.
Those familiar with Mr. Kouvalis, who is well-versed in voter-identification techniques and fundraising, say the values-screening proposal has the hallmarks of his strategy written all over it.
"My strong suspicion is that it's really not about the policy. It's about controlling the conversation. What is everybody talking about?" said Tom Allison, a Liberal who managed Mr. Tory's 2014 mayoral campaign for which Mr. Kouvalis was brought in as strategist despite his previous efforts to keep Mr. Tory out of both provincial and municipal politics.
Mr. Allison said Ms. Leitch is now leading the conversation. "And that means she's leading the race. And that means she's winning, and that means it's working."
But others say the button-pushing strategy could backfire.
John Laschinger, who ran the Toronto mayoral campaigns of both Joe Pantalone in 2010 and Olivia Chow in 2014, said Ms. Leitch's short-term gain could hurt the party in the long term.
"The risk is, extreme positions in Canada, on the right or on the left, wind up destroying political parties," said Mr. Laschinger, who recently released a book, Campaign Confessions: Tales from the War Rooms of Politics.
There are now five declared candidates in the race: Ms. Leitch; fellow Ontario MPs Tony Clement and Michael Chong; Quebec MP Maxime Bernier; and Alberta MP Deepak Obhrai. Presumed front-runner Peter MacKay recently announced he wasn't going to run, opening up the race to others considering leadership bids, including former cabinet minister Lisa Raitt and former House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer.
Mr. Kouvalis was reluctant to be interviewed for this article, save for a few words about his candidate. "I think Kellie's doing great," he said. "She's smart, she works hard, she has good urban and rural sense, and she can beat [Justin] Trudeau."
A father of three, Mr. Kouvalis grew up poor in Windsor, Ont., and once worked on the Chrysler assembly line before his first political gig as a volunteer with Belinda Stronach's federal Conservative leadership campaign in 2004. Those who have worked with him say he's one of the smartest and shrewdest operators in the business, if a bit of a wild card. He has also struggled with alcohol: a drunk-driving charge forced him to take a leave from the Leitch campaign early on.
He is not afraid to offend people: After issuing an ultimatum to the Fords, Mr. Kouvalis departed as Mr. Ford's chief of staff in 2011 after clashing with the late mayor's brother, Doug. He was once accused – and later acquitted – of uttering a death threat against Jeff Watson, the federal Conservative candidate whose successful campaign he'd led in 2004.
Unlike some in Ottawa, who never considered Ms. Leitch a likely front-runner, Mr. Kouvalis saw potential: a smart, confident, professional woman – Ms. Leitch is a pediatric orthopedic surgeon – with a vast network of conservative contacts.
She may need help with her image, but Mr. Kouvalis believes she can win the Tory leadership. "I've worked on lots of campaigns, and I've seen lots of people who aren't liked by the public win elections," one friend recalled Mr. Kouvalis as saying.
Many believe Mr. Kouvalis's research has led Ms. Leitch's campaign to double down on the Canadian identity issue.
Along with Richard Ciano, who is also working for Ms. Leitch as chief strategist, Mr. Kouvalis makes up one half of the marketing research firm, Campaign Research, and has years of experience running political call centres. (The industry's watchdog, the Market Research and Intelligence Association, once rebuked the company for making calls on behalf of the Conservatives in former Liberal MP Irwin Cotler's riding saying he might or was going to leave politics – a practice Mr. Kouvalis has defended as completely above board.)
"He thinks that the [polling] numbers lead them in this direction," said Aaron Wudrick, federal director at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, who worked with Mr. Kouvalis for two years as a lawyer at Campaign Research.
Ms. Leitch's proposal on screening immigrants for Canadian values has had its share of critics, including Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose – although Ms. Ambrose has since called for unity. Rachel Curran, Mr. Harper's former policy director, called the pitch dangerous and "Orwellian." Many in the party fear it could undo years of effort to open itself up to immigrant communities.
One rival referred to Mr. Kouvalis as a "political thug." Such criticisms only fuel him, Mr. Wudrick said. "He is one of these guys that relishes the haters. He doesn't get upset by it. He thrives on it," he said. "If more people are hating on him, he thinks he's doing his job."