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A day after the San Bernardino shootings, GOP candidates talk of a terror war at home

Presidential hopefuls talk about law enforcement, terrorism and gun control following the shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Toward the end of the nine-hour Republican Jewish Coalition presidential summit, an announcer had to break bad news. Unfortunately, Senate votes had swallowed Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) schedule. "He can't make it here right now."

The audience broke into a cheeky round of applause.

In the end, Paul was completely unable to make the summit, and focused on introducing an amendment -- the pro-gun Defend Our Capital Act -- in a Senate vote-a-rama. His absence made the RJC a harmonious affair, at least on the topic of homeland security and metadata surveillance.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) kicked off the day by sharing his "concern" that Wednesday's shootings in San Bernardino might have been acts of Islamic terrorism -- "radical Islamic terrorism here at home."

"Coming on the wake of a terror attack in Paris, this horrific murder underscores that we are in a time of war," he said.

“For the first time since 9/11, I think we’re going to have to confront the loss of American life on American soil to terrorist conduct," said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. "There’re many people today who are still trying to speculate what happened in San Bernardino. Let me tell you my perspective as a former prosecutor. From the time I began to watch the events unfold last night, I am convinced that was a terrorist attack."

Christie's message found support inside the room -- and far beyond. In a Quinnipiac poll released Thursday, 82 percent of Republicans said that the government's anti-terrorism programs had "not gone far enough to adequately protect the country." Christie criticized Paul by name, taking a kind of victory lap in their tete-a-tete about terrorism in the first Republican presidential debate -- before saying that the senators who ended the NSA's metadata collection program simply did not understand how it worked.

With Paul absent (a spokesman said the senator's remarks could wait for a later event), there was no rebuttal, and plenty of agreement.

"Gov. Christie brought tears to my eyes," said Phyllis Heideman, 68, whose parents immigrated to the United States after the Holocaust. "There was no malicious intent in the surveillance program they ended. The government doesn't care who I call, or how much my bill was at Saks Fifth Avenue. They're listening for connections between terrorists."

Nancy Lieberman, a New York lawyer who came to Washington to hear the candidates, said she believed the mass shooting in San Bernardino was the latest act of terrorism. Dealing with radicals is the single top priority of the next president, she said, and it’s through that lens that she will judge all candidates ahead of the vote in 2016.

“I work in Times Square," Lieberman said. "You don’t think that every day I don’t wonder if some nut with an AK-47 will spray people with a bullet?”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has tangled with Paul as often as Christie has, used a press conference after his RJC speech to reiterate a 2013 speech that Paul had criticized for suggesting war-like powers be used to track American terrorists.

"I think the American homeland is part of the battlefield," said Graham.

After suggesting that radicalized Muslims amounted to a "fifth column" in the United States -- a term once used to describe American sympathizers of Nazi Germany -- Graham said the San Bernardino shooters did not quite fit the bill.

"It was probably a one-off, but I think they're already here," he said of home-grown terrorism. "I think there are organized cells here in America, and the sooner we disrupt their headquarters in Iraq, the less effective they'll be."

Graham headed from the press conference to the Senate, where he introduced a wide-ranging authorization of military force against the Islamic State, one that would allow the war powers he had argued with Paul over.

But even some Republican contenders who held no current electoral office felt empowered to argue against privacy campaigners and libertarians. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina said that few politicians understood technology enough to know which reforms were needed, but should at least understand the value of metadata collection, the NSA program that ended -- thanks to a vote of Congress -- just days before the San Bernardino shootings.

"Edward Snowden is without a doubt a traitor, and should be tried for treason," said Fiorina, to applause.

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, the 2012 primary runner-up who has struggled for traction this year, went even further, telling reporters that nominating Paul or Cruz for president would put the Republican Party to the left of Hillary Clinton.

"Throw on top of the that the homeland security piece, what he did with Rand Paul on gutting the PATRIOT Act -- which I voted for, which I supported, and did not support an amendment to," said Santorum.

Asked if the San Bernardino attacks had discredited surveillance foes, Santorum left the door wide open.

"It's hard for me to know at this point how much communication was going on between the assailants and any kind of ISIS contacts," said Santorum. "Suffice to say, if there were some, and because of ending the metadata collection program we were not able to detect it, that proves the point -- that we need to use all means necessary, particularly in light of what Snowden has done."

Mary Jordan contributed reporting.