Where's the bacon? Rand Paul-Chris Christie feud all about 2016.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and US Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky mixed it up this week over foreign policy, spending, and civil liberties. Call it the first GOP primary debate for 2016.

Mel Evans/AP and Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (l.) and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky have been going at each other during the past week. The two Republicans have very different views about the identity of their party.

Many might be wondering about all that talk of bacon between two leading contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Well, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky aren’t exactly beefing about brunch orders.

Like two dogs sniffing each other in a crowded park, they’re testing each other’s mettle in advance of what’s likely to be a jam-packed GOP primary. They’re playing, as some reports suggest, for the “heart and soul of the Republican Party” by engaging in a feud about national security and government spending.

Will Senator Paul and the isolationists lay claim to a fractured and directionless GOP? Or will Governor Christie and the East Coast government-has-purpose centrists win out? With this feud, the politicians are also sampling messages, angling for headlines, and jockeying for position within the field of would-be contenders.

Here’s the quick skinny on the multi-day fracas and how that bacon dig played out:

Last week during an Aspen Institute forum, Christie slammed Paul’s libertarian foreign policy views. He invoked the families who lost loved ones on 9/11, suggesting generally that Paul’s ideology – his opposition to warrantless federal surveillance programs, for example – is “very dangerous.”

“You can name any number of people and he’s one of them,” Christie said of Paul. “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.”

Paul responded first via tweet: “Christie worries about the dangers of freedom. I worry about the danger of losing that freedom. Spying without warrants is unconstitutional.”

And then Paul accused Christie of being a big spender, happily raking in federal cash after Sandy devastated the New Jersey coastline.

“They’re precisely the same people who are unwilling to cut the spending, and their 'Gimme, gimme, gimme – give me all my Sandy money now.’ ” Paul said, according to the Associated Press. “Those are the people who are bankrupting the government and not letting enough money be left over for national defense.”

Christie then picked a new battle with Paul over the amount of federal money Kentucky and Garden State receive versus what each respective state contributes to the national pot. As that bickering crescendoed, Paul took to CNN to knock Christie in a way that referenced pork – as well as the governor’s much-discussed weight issues.

“This is the king of bacon talking about bacon,” the Republican from Kentucky said on CNN’s "The Situation Room." “You know, we have two military bases in Kentucky, and is Governor Christie recommending that we shut down our military bases?.… No what this debate really is about is that in order to have enough money for national defense, which I think is a priority for the government, you have to be willing to cut spending in other places, and Governor Christie and others have been part of this gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme all this money.”

Gimme, gimme, gimme a break.

Of course, there’s some substance underlying this squabble. Over the last two presidential cycles, the GOP has increasingly isolated itself from voters in the middle, and some party officials have undertaken an effort to determine how to win back Americans who might favor a responsibly engaged foreign policy but also be fiscal conservatives. Those for whom bipartisanship is not a bad word.

Christie represents one model that might appeal. He was willing to stand with President Obama in the wake of the hurricane, and, just one week before the 2012 election, to tour coastal damage – elevating his national profile and, to many of his colleagues’ chagrin, the Democratic president’s at a critical time. He is out to prove that he is not afraid of collaboration between the states and the federal government and that he could be a new kind of leader for the GOP, one who harkens back to a more sanguine time between the parties.

Paul is a scrapper whose died-in-the-wool conviction that less government is better on all fronts has a strong following among tea party elements of the Republican Party. He wants to show that he would be a commander-in-chief who values civil liberties, a belief inherited from his father, the three-time White House contender who drew a solid block of followers to his bids.

But this back and forth and back again between Christie and Paul, who are expected to be just two of at least a dozen White House hopefuls next cycle, is as much about political posturing – and preening – as it is about conviction. It also may be a test of what's to come.   

Though they’ve called an informal truce for now, Christie and Paul both want to be the big dogs in 2016.

They're not having the boys-with-beers photo-op Paul suggested, but the tensions have died down for now.

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