From his Statehouse reception room yesterday, Gov. Christie surveyed New Jersey's overwhelming rejection of school budgets and declared the results a "referendum on taxes and spending in New Jersey."

But the defeat of 315 of 537 budgets was much more than that, and the governor's office seemed to know it.

Administration officials launched the next barrage in Christie's tax war, pressing his wish for a statewide referendum on limiting school property-tax hikes to 2.5 percent a year.

The governor was building on his own momentum.

Christie stoked voter anger by using his uncommon ability to leap over the heads of the political establishment - as well as the teachers' union, the students' parents, and the school boards - and take a message directly to the broader electorate, said Thomas O'Neill, a political analyst, a lobbyist, and an official in the Brendan T. Byrne administration.

For weeks, Christie used his bully pulpit to stir up voters typically absent from the mid-April school elections. His message was clear: If school districts didn't cut spending, voters should reject their budgets.

"If you don't see shared sacrifice, I think that's a problem. I think you should vote no," he said.

In the end, voter turnout was higher than normal.

"I don't recall a governor being as active in any type of local election as Chris Christie was in this election," Seton Hall University political scientist Joseph Marbach said.

Christie took credit Monday for getting the public's attention.

"Voters - people who care enough to vote - 90 percent are saying they're following these budget discussions," he said. "We're energizing the public about public life and how important these decisions are."

O'Neill said Christie's talent in getting the public's attention lay in his skilled use of the governor's office.

"He speaks in a refreshingly candid and direct way, and we haven't seen that in the governor's office in a while," O'Neill said. "There's no ambiguity, at least so far. It seems that when he stakes out a position, he's sticking to it and he's fighting for it."

The governor was in full battle mode as he whipped up voter enthusiasm for Tuesday's school budget votes. At an election-eve Statehouse news conference called on another topic, he used the moment to castigate the state's largest teachers' union for politicking in the classroom.

His eyes sparkled when he hit his strongest, most head-turning line. He said teachers were "using the students like drug mules to carry information back from the classroom" to influence their parents' budget votes.

The New Jersey Education Association, which has been the target of much of Christie's criticism and which has hit back hard, said the budget votes mean the governor has to fix his cuts to school aid.

"The voters sent a clear message. I think it was a message to the governor and the legislature to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new budget," NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer said.

Monmouth University polling director Patrick Murray said it was unclear what voters really said, other than that they wanted the state's high property taxes fixed.

"The one victory Christie can claim here is that his style has caused this to bubble to the surface," Murray said. "While all those people did not go out there to support the governor, they did go out there because of the governor."

And the governor set this in motion when he cut state aid to schools, Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin said.

The defeats were "not only predictable because people don't like property taxes, but they were predictable because the governor cut state aid to education, and school boards proposed increases in property taxes" to make up for the state cuts, Dworkin said.

"The bottom line is, he is trying to have the state spend less money on education," Dworkin said. "If school districts are spending less because budgets went down, it means the state can spend less subsidizing them."

But there's a downside, O'Neill said.

"I think people are getting it - that significant change is needed," he said. "Whether they're going to like that change if the change hurts something they personally value is another thing."