Two of the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 are clashing over the future of the Republican Party. [WATCH VIDEO]
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) took direct aim at Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a speech Thursday, denouncing the emerging "strain of libertarianism" on national security in the GOP as "very dangerous."
"Christie worries about the dangers of freedom. I worry about the danger of losing that freedom. Spying without warrants is unconstitutional," he tweeted.
The feuding between the two men reflects a debate that will be raging in the GOP through 2016, when the party decides on a new standard-bearer.
Both Christie and Paul are seen as contenders for the nomination. Christie would be the more centrist candidate compared to Paul, a fiscal conservative known for his criticism of drones and foreign aid.
Christie adviser Mike DuHaime said the New Jersey governor's remarks were in response to a Thursday House vote on the NSA programs and shouldn't be interpreted in the context of a possible presidential run.
He dismissed the suggestion that Christie's comments were meant to convey that he doesn't see a place for libertarians in the party. Such an inference, he said, was an "attempt to overanalyze" Christie's response.
"[His comments] were simply about the NSA vote and what that means and where that goes, and any attempts to overanalyze this are a mistake," he said.
But Paul's camp is pushing back hard, saying Christie was off-base in suggesting the debate over government surveillance was "esoteric."
“If Gov. Christie believes the constitutional rights and the privacy of all Americans is ‘esoteric,’ he either needs a new dictionary, or he needs to talk to more Americans, because a great number of them are concerned about the dramatic overreach of our government in recent years," said Paul adviser Doug Stafford.
Stafford cited Bruce Springsteen, one of Christie's favorite musicians, to drive the point home.
“In the words of the governor’s favorite lyricist, ‘You know that flag flying over the courthouse, means certain things are set in stone. Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t.'”
The House this week narrowly defeated an amendment to a Defense spending bill that would have prevented the NSA from conducting surveillance on people who are not under investigation. The White House and congressional leaders in both parties opposed the amendment.
Christie made his critical remarks during a discussion of that vote at an event sponsored by the Aspen Institute.
"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 he was referring to Paul, Christie said: "You can name any number of people, and he's one of them."
Christie mounted a full-throated defense of the NSA programs, arguing that President Obama did not shut them down after succeeding President George W. Bush because they work.
He then said those opposed to the programs should explain their beliefs to families of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"These esoteric, intellectual debates — I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation. And they won't because that's a much tougher conversation to have," he said.
Christie said proponents of blocking the program would regret their stance if another terrorist attack happened.
"The next attack that comes, that kills thousands of Americans as a result, people are going to be looking back on the people having this intellectual debate and wondering where they put …" Christie said before ending his thought.
DuHaime said that Christie's experience as a U.S. attorney and governor of a state with heightened security concerns following 9/11 inform his views on national security issues, and that the comments were simply a reflection of that experience.
The New Jersey governor's aggressive style has long endeared himself to conservatives, but he has faced a backlash over the past year because of what they say is his overly cozy relationship with President Obama.
The governor has toured New Jersey with Obama multiple times to appraise the reconstruction efforts following Hurricane Sandy and praised the president's response to the storm just a few weeks before the 2012 election, infuriating conservatives who saw it as a blow to Mitt Romney's candidacy.
DuHaime said he wasn't concerned about potential backlash from Christie's latest comments, citing his defeat of a primary challenger and lead in the polls in his bid to be reelected governor of New Jersey.
"I'm completely unworried about how Gov. Christie is doing among conservatives," he said.
He indicated that, if anything, the comments were a reflection of the governor's infamous proclivity for "saying what he thinks."
"The governor does his job; he says what he thinks, and he'll leave everybody else to overanalyze it," he said.
— This story was first posted at 8:30 a.m. and has been updated.