Gov. Christie, the scheduled keynote speaker at this week's East Coast Gaming Congress in Atlantic City at the new Revel Casino, will not attend the gambling conference, a decision that some critics again tied to his presumed national political ambitions.
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno will take his place, said Christie's press secretary, Michael Drewniak.
"Nothing more than a scheduling conflict and change," Drewniak said late Friday of Christie's backing out as the luncheon speaker Thursday for the two-day gathering.
The governor's decision to be a no-show came just days before a Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll Monday that showed the majority of Garden State residents oppose online wagering based at Atlantic City casinos.
"Online gambling may be a good bet for new state revenue," Peter Woolley, the poll's director and a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said on Monday, "but lots of voters don't think it's a good bet for New Jersey households."
In addition, publicly supporting Internet gaming right now could be a political liability for Christie, who is presumed to be in the running for bigger things on the national political stage.
Woolley said the issue is "sensitive for Christie, because on the one hand, there is a genuine push to find a solution to Atlantic City's declining revenue, and the resort genuinely needs to compete with the industry outside the state, and adding [Internet gaming] could be seen as an attempt to stave off a lot of pressure to develop gambling in other parts of the state, namely the Meadowlands. On the other hand, by a significant margin, people oppose it."
Monday's poll results showed that of 797 registered voters surveyed statewide, three in five were against Internet wagering from computer servers based strictly at Atlantic City casinos. Three in five favored sports betting at the state's casinos and racetracks.
"I think [Christie] knows any decisions he makes now are going to be scrutinized at the national level," said Woolley, "and so when you have ambitions for a national job, you have to wonder how this policy plays out in Peoria as well as in Paterson.
"With I-gaming, I think people are fearful that there will be too much gambling," he said. "Anybody who is a parent has to be thinking, 'Is my kid going to have access to that? Is my spouse going to end up losing my house, or is somebody going to pay the casino rather than my health insurance?'?"
The statewide poll was conducted by telephone using both land lines and cell phones from April 30 to May 6. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Woolley said the only segment of the population that favored Internet gaming was people under 30, who are "far more likely to be renters than homeowners, and far more likely to be single and to not have children."
But some Democrats and industry insiders say Christie's no-show at this week's gaming conference has more to do with timing. Some of them told The Inquirer last week that the governor may be in the running for a spot on presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's ticket, or other plum jobs should Romney win the White House, and did not want to offend potential key donors from the gaming industry to the GOP, including Las Vegas Sands Corp.'s billionaire chairman and chief executive Sheldon Adelson, who fear competition from legalized Internet gaming.
Adelson gave more than $21 million to Newt Gingrich's aborted presidential campaign and may now be looking to support another GOP presidential candidate.
"We were told the governor cannot be in front of the gaming industry right now," said an Atlantic City casino executive who asked not to be named.
Lloyd D. Levenson, chief executive of the law firm Cooper Levenson, which is coproducer and co-organizer of the East Coast Gaming Congress, said he was notified late last week that Guadagno would fill in for Christie.
"I was told there was a scheduling conflict," Levenson said. In Christie's defense, Levenson said, when he booked Christie last fall, the governor's handlers told him Christie's schedule could change quickly.
"They said, 'Yes, we'll come. But you have to realize that things come up at the last minute,'?" he said.
Yet some remain surprised by Christie's backing out. If there was a year that Christie would have had the gaming industry's full attention, it would have been this year, they contend.
The governor has made the turnaround of Atlantic City and its ailing casino industry a priority. In summer 2010, Christie announced the creation of an unprecedented state-run tourism district in Atlantic City with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority as overseer. And this year's conference is taking place at the $2.4 billion Revel, to which the state contributed $261 million in tax credits to complete. Revel, the first ground-up new casino in Atlantic City in nine years, has its grand opening May 25 on the busy Memorial Day weekend.
"The Revel tax credits were a result of my legislation and instigation," said State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), who is prime sponsor of the Internet-gaming and sports-betting measures in the Senate, and has accused the governor of delaying action on both pieces of legislation. "The longer we wait for Internet gaming, the tighter the noose gets around Revel and other New Jersey casinos."
Lesniak's online-wagering bill passed a Senate committee last month and is slated for a floor vote at the end of the month. A version was released Thursday by an Assembly panel.
Levenson said this year's conference, with panels devoted to I-gaming, increased casino competition in the Mid-Atlantic, and an update on the regulatory landscape, was particularly important. Congress and other states are debating whether to legalize Internet gaming, while the fate of sports betting in New Jersey hangs in the balance.
Even the gathering's name was enlarged this year to the 16th Annual East Coast Gaming Congress and Hospitality Forum to reflect the growing role of retail, dining, and non-gaming attractions.
"This year, there is a lot going on," said Levenson. "There are a lot of new initiatives that have occurred since last year's Congress which are potentially game-changers for Atlantic City."