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2016 GOP frontrunners Christie, Paul trade jabs over national security

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This split image shows Sen. Rand Paul (left) and Gov. Chris Christie (right) (AP)

Privacy concerns split the conservative and libertarian wings of the Republican Party this week as GOP political frontrunners New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul butted heads over the government’s surveillance programs.

Christie criticized a “strain of libertarianism” coursing through both parties as a “very dangerous thought” more than a decade after the nation’s deadliest terrorist attacks claimed the lives of 3,000 Americans.

During a forum in Colorado Thursday, Christie was asked whether he meant Paul, a potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate.

“You can name any number of people and he's one of them," Christie said. "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."

Christie’s state suffered the second-highest casualties in the hijacked airplane attacks on New York and Washington. He also praised the policies Presidents George W. Bush and Obama used to fight terrorism.

“President Obama has done nothing to change the policies of the Bush administration in the war on terrorism,” Christie said. “And I mean practically nothing. Any you know why? Cause they work.”

On Friday, Paul’s camp fired back, taking to Twitter to argue their case.

Paul tweeted that Christie “worries about the dangers of freedom. I worry about the danger of losing that freedom. Spying without warrants is unconstitutional."

For Republicans, the national security debate offers a window into an evolving party that nearly a decade ago re-elected Bush, in part on the basis of his administration's hard-line response to the terror attacks and use of tools provided by the USA Patriot Act, which gave the administration the powers to search records and conduct roving wiretaps in pursuit of terrorists.

It also serves notice that whoever hopes to claim the GOP nomination in 2016 may need to fuse factions within the party on national security.

The exchange followed a fight earlier this week in Congress over the National Security Agency's collection of hundreds of millions of U.S. phone records. Libertarian-leaning conservatives and liberal Democrats sought to undo the NSA program because they contend is an affront to civil liberties.

The House narrowly defeated the attempt to restrict the surveillance, with some Republicans questioning whether their adversaries had forgotten the lessons of 2001.

The House vote came  weeks after former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked classified documents that exposed the government's secret surveillance activities. And it followed Paul's nearly 13-hour filibuster in March over Obama's pick to lead the CIA, a fight that focused attention on the president's use of aerial drones to kill suspected terrorists and concerns that unmanned aircraft could be used in the United States to target suspects who are American citizens.

Doug Stafford, a top adviser to Paul, said in a statement that if 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."

Republican consultants based in early presidential voting states said there is an undeniable growing strain of libertarianism within the GOP that has already begun to reshape the political debate as candidates begin to jockey for position three years before the next presidential contest.

South Carolina-based Republican operative Hogan Gidley said there are risks -- both for candidates like Christie who criticize the libertarian movement and for candidates like Paul who embrace it. "You can't ignore the libertarian movement. And if you do, you do it at your own peril," said Gidley, a senior aide on Rick Santorum's 2012 presidential campaign.

How Republicans deal with the debate could shape the party's future after losing the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections.

"It's a mistake to try to drive anybody out when you're losing," said Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Tea Party Express. "I think you need to tolerate those different viewpoints."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.