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5 things we're learning from Christie-Paul spat

By Paul Steinhauser, CNN Political Editor
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Thu August 1, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • War of words between Rand Paul and Chris Christie reflects division among Republicans
  • Paul represents conservative-libertarian wing of the party, Christie represents moderates
  • GOP strategist predicts Republican primaries will look 'a lot like a cage match'
  • Was Paul's 'king of bacon' comment about Christie's weight?

Washington (CNN) -- A very public squabble between two top Republican politicians who might be leading contenders for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination has grabbed clicks online and airtime on cable news.

The war of words between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky over national security, civil liberties and federal spending is also a proxy for the bigger battle for the future of the Republican Party.

Here are five things we're learning from their spat.

1. The fight for the 2016 GOP nomination is under way

It's only the summer of 2013, but the intensity of the exchanges between Christie and Paul makes it feel like late 2015 in some ways, with the start of the caucus and primary season just weeks away.

The back and forth started last week when Christie, at a forum in Colorado with other GOP governors, slammed Paul for his criticism of government surveillance to battle terrorists.

"This strain of libertarianism that's going through parties right now and making big headlines, I think, is a very dangerous thought," Christie said.

Asked if Paul was one of the people he was pointing toward, Christie added: "You can name any number of people and he's one of them."

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Paul pushed back.

"I'm the one trying to grow the party by talking about libertarian ideas of privacy and the Internet and attacking me isn't helping the party. He's hurting the party," Paul said in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer on "The Situation Room."

Rep. Peter King of New York, who's also considering a run for the White House, also jumped into the fray with comments critical of the libertarian-leaning senator.

"He wants to retreat from the world. He wants to isolate ourselves, go back to a fortress America," King told Blitzer on Wednesday.

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2. This is far from over

While this round may be finished, others are sure to follow.

On Wednesday, Paul made a pitch for the two men to sit down and talk it out, hoping to ease tensions.

"I'm inviting him to a beer -- anytime he would like to come down and sit down at the pub right around the corner from the Senate," Paul said in an interview on Fox News, adding that proposed get-together didn't have to be in the nation's capital.

"We could always negotiate a middle ground like Philadelphia maybe," said Paul.

That didn't seem to fly with the tough-talking governor.

"I'm running for re-election in New Jersey, I don't really have time for that at the moment. If I find myself in Washington, I'll certainly look him up," Christie said in a radio interview on New Jersey 101.5. "But I've got work to do here."

Expect the action to pick up again in the future.

"This is just the beginning. This is not going to stop," CNN Chief National Correspondent John King said.

GOP strategist and CNN contributor Ana Navarro agreed.

"I think we are going to end up with a Republican primary that looks a lot like a cage match," she said.

3. War of words illustrates bigger battle

Sure, this is about 2016, but it's also about a much bigger fight for the future of the GOP.

Most Republicans agree: Major changes are needed if the party wants to be competitive in future presidential elections. But a new poll of Republicans nationwide also indicates that there's little agreement on the direction the GOP should take.

That's playing out in the fireballs between Christie and Paul: The New Jersey governor represents the more traditional establishment wing of the party, with Paul the standard-bearer for the libertarian and grassroots conservative/tea party wing.

With losses in the last two presidential elections still stinging, two-thirds of Republicans questioned in the Pew Research Center poll say that the GOP needs to address major problems to do better in future presidential contests.

Three in 10 disagree, saying the party just needs to address minor problems. Along those lines, nearly six in 10 say the party needs to reconsider some positions, with 36% saying the GOP needs to make a stronger case for its current policies.

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But there's less agreement on what the path the party should take.

By 54%-40% margin, Republican and Republican-leaning voters say party leaders should move in a more conservative direction, with four in 10 urging a more moderate direction.

"Not surprisingly, conservatives and those who agree with the tea party overwhelmingly favor moving in a more conservative direction, while moderates and liberals would like to see the party take more centrist positions. Yet the more moderate wing of the party is a minority generally, and makes up an even smaller share of the likely primary electorate," Pew said in releasing the poll.

King said that ensures a "spirited debate" in the months ahead. "They have to deal with the immigration issue again. They have that ditch with Latino voters. Taxes and spending."

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4. Chris Christie doesn't pull punches

Yes, we knew this. But this episode reminds us of how blunt Christie can be.

While Paul seemed on Wednesday to be trying to bring the scuffle to an end, Christie held his ground.

"At the end of the day, I didn't call him any names, yet he called me names," Christie said in his radio interview Wednesday. "I just have to assume from that that he's just trying to get attention."

Christie was talking about his initial comments that sparked the feud, adding: "It really had nothing to do with Senator Paul, but Senator Paul wanted to make it about Senator Paul," Christie added.

Christie speaks his mind, which appeals to voters, and not just Republicans. While Paul has a higher favorable rating among Republicans than Christie, according to the Pew poll, Christie has crossover appeal with Independents and Democrats that Paul can't match.

5. Did Paul go there?

Paul accused Christie of harming national security by hoarding federal relief money for Superstorm Sandy victims. Christie responded by calling on Paul to cut federal pork spending in Kentucky.

"But I doubt he would because most Washington politicians only care about bringing home the bacon so that they can get re-elected," Christie charged on Tuesday.

Paul responded later in the day on "The Situation Room," saying, "This is the king of bacon talking about bacon."

Was there more to Paul's "bacon" comment than just pork spending?

Paul advisers say it had nothing to do with Christie's weight, which was an issue when he first ran for governor in 2009. While it's not a problem for Christie as he appears to cruise towards re-election, it will most definitely come up again and again if he opts to run for the White House.

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