Voters got a tantalizing preview of a possibly contentious battle for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul kicked off a recent public spat, trading personal insults and harsh words in the media.
Mel Evans / AP
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at an event on Monday, July 29, 2013, in Morristown, N.J.
The battle started last week when Christie, the pugnacious governor regarded as a top contender for the GOP nod in 2016, called the Republican libertarianism represented by Paul a “very dangerous” trend for the GOP.
"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," Christie said at the Aspen Institute forum on Thursday, referring to the surviving families of 9/11 victims. "And they won't, because that's a much tougher conversation to have."
From then, the fight was on. Paul responded Monday on Fox News by accusing Christie of shrouding himself in a “cloak of 9/11 victims,” and went on in the week to chide the New Jersey governor for a “gimme, gimme, gimme” attitude in seeking federal funds to assist with Hurricane Sandy.
And when Christie fired back by noting how much money Paul’s home state of Kentucky received from the government compared to the tax revenue it receives, Paul went on the radio to label Christie a “liberal Republican.”
“This is the king of bacon talking about bacon,” Paul added during an appearance on CNN.
The sparring could well foretell a major showdown in the 2016 Republican primary, should both Christie and Paul seek the Republican Party’s nomination. Each are titans of very different corners of the GOP, and a fight would not just test personalities against each other, but possibly emerging factions of the conservative movement, as well.
Hopes of a truce got a brief boost on Wednesday when Paul proposed that Christie come down to D.C. for a "beer summit" of sorts.
"I'm inviting him for a beer. Anytime he would like to come down and sit down at the pub right around the Senate, we'll sit down," Paul said on Fox News. "I think we could sit down and have a beer and mend things."
The Republican field is relatively wide open at this early stage; a McClatchy-Marist poll released this month found Christie leading, at 15 percent, among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents’ choice of a 2016 nominee. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., checks in at 13 percent, followed by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at 12 percent, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at 10 percent and Paul at 9 percent.
But Christie fares slightly better than Paul against Hillary Clinton, Democrats’ overwhelming (early) favorite to carry the party’s banner in 2016.
The same McClatchy-Marist poll found Christie trailing Clinton by six points, 47 percent to 41 percent, nationwide; Clinton would beat Paul by twice that margin, 50 percent to 38 percent.
Of course, the important thing to stress is that the battle for the Republican nomination is still at its infancy. But the tiff between Christie and Paul helps illustrate how jockeying for that campaign has already begun in earnest.
Paul has been far more open about his possible future aspirations at this stage. He’s traveled several times already to Iowa, the traditional home to each presidential election’s nominating contest. And the Kentucky senator has also traveled to New Hampshire and South Carolina, which usually hold the second and third contests, respectively.
Erik Schelzig / AP
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky speaks at a fundraiser in Franklin, Tenn., on Sunday, July 28, 2013.
Christie has been far more focused on winning re-election to a second term as governor of New Jersey. But two straight wins for a Republican in the usually Democratic Garden State could bolster Christie’s claims to electability in an eventual 2016 primary showdown.
Other Republican lawmakers are getting in on the act, too. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has traveled to Iowa, as has Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Cruz, the conservative firebrand who’s made major waves in the GOP after almost seven months in office, is now helping to lead a charge linking defunding Obamacare to authorizing continued government spending and increasing the debt limit.
Other Republicans have begun to step forward to criticize that effort, calling it poor strategy. But as with the Christie vs. Paul showdown, criticism of Cruz helps lay bare many of the fault lines that currently divide Republicans. The reason the fight between Christie and Paul resonates so deeply is because each of them are giving voice to substantial portions of the Republican base.
As if to drive home those divisions, Sen. John McCain – the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, who frequently clashes with Paul over issues of national security and foreign policy – joked this week that voting in an election pitting Paul versus Clinton would make for a “tough choice.”
First published July 31 2013, 2:19 PM