Wanted: Daring Democrat for Christie challenge

Associated Press
In this Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 photo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, right, Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty, left, and others watch a pile-driver during a ceremony to kick off the construction of a new boardwalk in Belmar, N.J., to replace the walkway destroyed by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. The stop was one of many on Gov. Christie's schedule following his State of the State message this week. With his popularity and visibility at record highs after Superstorm Sandy, Democrats are wondering if there is anyone left in the party to challenge him for re-election, beyond the one declared candidate who is not the first choice of the party establishment. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Gov. Chris Christie was seemingly everywhere at once after his State of the State message this week: the cover of Time magazine, the morning talk show circuit (yet again), and the Jersey shore to christen a new boardwalk.

With his popularity and visibility at record highs after Superstorm Sandy, Democrats are wondering if there is anyone left in the party to challenge him for re-election, beyond the one declared candidate who is not the first choice of the party establishment.

Democratic State Committee Chairman John Wisniewski said he's "antsy" for a decision from the fence-sitters.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker was believed to the most formidable potential challenger but he said "no" last month, throwing Democrats a curve many said was unexpected. Booker on Tuesday filed with the Federal Election Commission as a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2014.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney and former Gov. Dick Codey, the lawmaker Sweeney ousted to gain the leadership post, are still saying they might run. Congressman Bill Pascrell all but took himself out of the running on Thursday by telling Politickernj.com, "I'm not pursuing that position."

That leaves Sen. Barbara Buono as the only major Democrat who has announced a challenge to the governor-turned-political titan. But Buono is not the top choice of establishment Democrats. As long as they continue to recruit an alternate candidate, Buono will be an underdog in her own party and a longshot in a would-be face-off against Christie.

Even Democrats acknowledge the huge risk involved in challenging the incumbent Christie, whose command of the bully pulpit and YouTube video have made him a national political star and strong early contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

As sitting legislators facing re-election in November, Buono, Sweeney and Codey would have to give up their Senate seats to run because candidates can't campaign for two elected offices simultaneously.

Buono, the 59-year-old former Senate majority leader, arguably has the least to lose. She was stripped of her leadership position for opposing Sweeney, and she'd be all but certain to stay on the Senate bench as long as the current power structure survives.

"Barbara Buono is adventurous enough to get in the race; she's on the battlefield right now," Wisniewski said in the Metuchen senator's defense, probably attempting to impose a deadline for the 'Anybody but Barbara' faction of the party to decide.

If Buono was spooked by Christie's 70-plus point job approval rating in public opinion polls taken after Sandy, she didn't show it. If she was intimidated by the governor raising $2 million in the first five weeks of his campaign, she camouflaged those concerns as well. (She brought in nearly $250,000 in the days after Booker backed out.) And, if she's offended by the anti-Barbara brigade within the party, she's brushed those feelings aside.

Buono told The Associated Press that Democratic Party in-fighting "is nothing new."

"In Democratic politics there's always high drama before a big election like this," she said.

Sen. Ray Lesniak, the powerful Union County Democrat, has thrown the weight of his endorsement behind Codey, who pushed back his own Jan. 1 deadline for a decision.

Others who are looking for a candidate they consider more formidable than Buono fear that a strong Christie showing at the polls could cause Democratic losses in legislative, county and local races. They're especially concerned that the Democratic-led Senate could fall to Republican control, an unlikely though not impossible outcome with the chamber currently split 24-16 and 700,000 more registered Democrats in the state than Republicans.

Gubernatorial candidates technically have until April 1 to file their intent to run in the June primary. But, for fundraising, endorsement and campaigning purposes, the party wants to know who's in and who's out as soon as possible.

Wisniewski said he and Democratic Party chairs in the 21 counties have "grown antsy" waiting for a consensus candidate to emerge. In a recent conference call they discussed giving politicians who are sitting on the fence a deadline to decide, but abandoned the idea as too strong-armed. However, Wisniewski, who is recovering from eye surgery, said he's about to make another round of calls with decisions anticipated next week.

Christie said it doesn't matter to him who the Democrats put up. He hasn't had to state the obvious: The Democratic candidate, whoever it is, will begin the race with a big fundraising and name-recognition deficit against a governor who is viewed by many as hurricane-rebuilder-in-chief.

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