Gov. Christie made it clear last week that he will seek the 2016 Republican nomination for president as a hawk, saying the libertarian approach to national security ascendant in some quarters of the GOP leads straight to the horror of Sept. 11.
"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 a gathering of the Republican Governors Association in Aspen, Colo. "And they won't, because that's a much tougher conversation to have."
He was ripping those Republicans, like potential 2016 rival Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who have questioned whether government surveillance programs have eroded civil liberties and ought to be curtailed.
Theirs is a growing strain of thought. Last week, a vote to cut off funding for the National Security Agency's warrantless gathering of millions of Americans' phone and Internet records narrowly failed in the House. The measure attracted an unusual coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans defying their party leadership, a full 40 percent of the GOP caucus.
"I think what we as a country have to decide is: Do we have amnesia? Because I don't," Christie said. "And I remember what we felt like on Sept. 12, 2001."
He sounded a bit like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who talked ceaselessly about the attacks on the trail during his brief 2008 presidential campaign. Of course, Christie would rather that Republicans think more of Ronald Reagan or even George W. Bush.
"I don't mind spying on terrorists," Paul said Sunday. "I just don't like spying on all Americans." He also said Christie's "gimme gimme gimme" posture after Sandy illustrated why government spending is out of control, and said libertarian ideas appeal to the youth vote Republicans need.
The issue provides Christie a chance to position himself rightward. Many conservatives remain suspicious of the Northeastern governor who was effusive in his praise for President Obama after Sandy struck at the end of the 2012 campaign. Some in the Southern-dominated GOP also opposed the massive federal spending for Sandy recovery, and Christie himself has been considered a closet moderate among some on the right.
As a U.S. attorney for New Jersey, appointed by Bush the day before al-Qaeda killers flew jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Christie probably has more terrorism-fighting credentials than anybody else in the putative Republican field.
One thing is clear after last week: the papered-over tensions between libertarians, appealing to a public weary of more than a decade of war, and neoconservatives is out in the open. The battle to define the Republican Party for the next presidential election is underway, at least on one crucial issue.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, another libertarian who is also touted as a potential presidential candidate, suggested (without naming him) that Christie just doesn't get the Constitution.
"Frankly, one of the reasons for deep frustrations so many Americans have with career politicians - both Republican and Democrat - is that they've lost sight of liberty," Cruz said on Andrea Tarantos' radio show Monday. "I think there's an incredible hunger to get back to the principles that made this nation strong."