Is public infighting healthy for the Republican Party?

Two of the biggest stars in the GOP, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Iowa Sen. Rand Paul, are locked in a feud over national security programs that is starting to feel like a Republican primary campaign. Chip Reid reports.

Is it the song that never ends? On Sunday, early frontrunners for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination found a new topic to debate: Whether or not the Republican Party should be spending so much time debating.

The respective sides, for the past month, have been fronted by two very representative forces in the GOP's raging civil war: In one corner stands New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie - a favorite among establishment Republicans who like to break bread, and legislation, with Democrats now and then; in the other, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. - the purist ideologue and heir to the libertarian throne vacated by his father, former congressman and three-time presidential candidate Ron Paul.

Offering up one of two jarringly different routes on which the GOP can choose to proceed in 2016, the younger Paul charged on "Fox News Sunday" that it all started last month with Christie, "saying, 'Oh, we don't have room for libertarian Republicans.'"

At the Aspen Institute in Colorado in July, Christie wagged a finger at the growing "strain of libertarianism" in his party. Specifically calling out Paul's campaign against government snooping programs, like those exposed by Edward Snowden at the National Security Agency, Christie said the hands-off government mentality is a "very dangerous thought."

But Paul countered Sunday: "The thing is, that's how we grow our party. The party is big enough for both of us - it's big enough for a lot of different Republicans." In the Northeast, he went on, the party "is shrinking - almost down to nothing. They need to be looking to people with new and different ideas."

On Thursday, Christie laid out another option. Headlining a Republican National Convention luncheon in Boston, he spoke on the political chops needed for a Republican to win a blue state like New Jersey: "We are not a debating society; we are a political operation that needs to win," he said. "I am going to do anything I need to do to win.

"...I think we have some folks who think we have to be college professors," he said. "For our ideas to win we have to govern. And if we don't win, we don't govern."

Over the last few weeks, mouthpieces from Sarah Palin to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas - another potential name on the 2016 ballot - have rallied to Paul's side. But Christie, who's reportedly investing in some sturdy groundwork for a possible 2016 bid, has some heavyweights on his team, as well.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in March took to the Senate floor to brand the nearly 13-hour filibuster that made Paul a household name nothing more than a "political stunt" used to "fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms." Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., assumed his usual role as McCain's wingman, calling "offensive" and "absurd" a question Paul had asked about drone strikes on U.S. soil.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has floated his own name as a counterbalance to Paul's in the 2016 draft. And appearing on the same program as the Kentucky senator, he took issue with Paul's characterization of NSA programs that cull U.S. metadata with the intent to track suspected terrorist activity: "I totally disagree with what Sen. Rand Paul says," King said on Fox News. "That was just a grab bad of misinformation and distortion."

Sunday's comments from Paul and King are just the latest intraparty debates being played out in public.

Another fight that began before the summer congressional recess but is sure to heat up again when lawmakers return: The vociferous debate among Republicans, led by potential 2016 candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, over how to try to stop Obamacare, which after all the bluster, may not even be possible at this point.

But the Republican Party's infighting is "healthy," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said on ABC's "This Week." A "family debate is not a bad thing at all - and I really believe that," he argued. "I don't think at a time when we just came off of a presidential election that having a party that is just dull and boring is something that is good for not just our party, but for this country. So I think that these debates are good."

Priebus, though, is party to internal squabbling himself. After the chairman warned NBC and CNN that his committee won't partner with the two networks unless they agree to pull the plug on documentary programs about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Eric Ferhnstrom - one of Mitt Romney's top advisers in 2012 - cautioned in a Twitter post about "bad optics," and called Priebus's wage against the media a "loser's game."

"The fact of the matter is I've got to protect this party and our nominees," Priebus shot back on ABC. "We don't want a whole lot of 23 debate rounds like we've had before."

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    Lindsey Boerma is senior video producer for CBSNews.com.

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