BOSTON - New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told Republican operatives Thursday to make winning elections the focus of the party, not endless intra-party debate - at the same time highlighting differences between himself and potential 2016 Republican rivals for the presidency.
"We are not a debating society. We are a political operation that needs to win," Christie told activists and GOP operatives at a Republican National Committee luncheon at their summer meeting. "My job is to win. I believe my job is to win. Our job is not to be college professors."
Christie's speech was closed to reporters, but several GOP sources invited to the luncheon shared parts of the New Jersey governor's speech with ABC News. Several people listening to the speech believed he was making distinctions between himself and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
Paul and Christie have had an ongoing feud that began in July when Christie warned Paul's brand of "libertarianism" was dangerous for the country. He also called Paul's libertarian viewpoint both "esoteric" and intellectual, starting a war of words on each other's positions ranging from national security to pork barrel spending.
Christie also appeared today to hit Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, another possible 2016 rival, who in a keynote address at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting in Charlotte, N.C., in January, said, "We've got to stop being the stupid party. It's time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults."
"I'm not going to be one of these people who goes and calls our party stupid," said Christie, widely thought to be eyeing the White House. "We need to stop navel gazing. There's nothing wrong with our principles. We need to focus on winning again. There's too much at stake for this to be an academic exercise. We need to win and govern with authority and courage."
Jindal currently leads the Republican Governors Association, but Christie is set to take over in 2014 if he is re-elected in New Jersey.
An RNC member leaving the speech who did not want to be identified told ABC News he believed Christie was laying out differences between himself and his rivals, Jindal and Paul, ahead of a possible 2016 face-off.
"I think this is very clearly a speech he was using to give the party a choice between two or even three visions of where the party ought to go," the RNC member said. "Is this a party that exists to win elections or is it a party that exists, as he said, to debate esoteric policy?… I think Gov. Christie is trying to appeal to … the silent majority of people who aren't actively involved in the party, per se, who vote every four years, who want commonsense solutions … and that's an appealing message."
The speech was very well-received, according to people leaving the luncheon.
Mississippi GOP Chairman Joe Nosef said it was "one of the best political speeches I have ever heard, and I think I've gotten to the point where it takes a lot to impress me in a luncheon speech."
Matt Moore, the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party said, "What caught most people's attention" in Christie's speech was "the true mission of the Republican Party. Our job is to win elections.
"There is time for debating, there is time for discussion, but at the end of the day, if we don't win it's all for naught," Moore said. "At this point, that's a very appealing message. We have autopsied the 2012 results for a number of months and now it is time to win. … We are here to win."
Nosef described Jindal's speech in January, which he has heard, as "more of a critique of what happened," but added Christie's was "expressly not that."
"It was an optimistic road map, really, of how Republicans can not only win elections but govern," Nosef said. "I think his distinction is the fact that he is in a blue state that he's governed successfully, looks like he is going to be re-elected and all the different coalitions he talked about. It seems like almost everything as a national party we need to do, he's been able to do it."
Nosef added that Christie's "point was: Unless we are just in it to theorize and talk about philosophy, at some point we have to govern. In order to govern you need to get elected."
When it comes to 2016, he said, Christie has shown people "if he can get elected in New Jersey, he can probably get elected in a lot of places that aren't traditionally Republican."
Steve Scheffler, the Iowa committeeman for the RNC, said he is "concerned" about where Christie stands on "social issues like immigration and gun rights," but said he was "more impressed than I thought I would be."
"Basically," Scheffler said as he was leaving the ballroom, "he talked about [how], if you stand on principals and you don't back away from it, the voters may not always agree with you but they respect you and, probably, in the long run, you can probably convince them to stand with you. So I was pretty impressed."
Christie also spoke about his own accomplishments and his record in New Jersey, recalling themes he has touched on in his town halls around the Garden State and on the campaign trail as he seeks re-election - issues like teacher and public worker pension reform and the state's budget deficit.
He also told a story about his "Irish father and Sicilian mother," how it formed his no-nonsense approach and how, on his mother's deathbed, he realized they had "left nothing unsaid." The story, a standard part of his New Jersey stump speech, was noted as a favorite moment for many of the attendees.
"It tells you more of where he comes from," said A.J. Spiker, the Republican Party chairman from Iowa and a former Ron Paul supporter. "She he is the way he is."