Has Barbara Buono forsaken South Jersey? Or has South Jersey forsaken Barbara Buono?
Just 8 days before New Jersey's Democratic gubernatorial primary, the woman who wants to replace Gov. Christie is launching a TV ad - in North Jersey, not South Jersey. Lawn signs advertising her candidacy in the southern region are virtually nonexistent. And just 16 people from the most populated counties around Philadelphia - Camden, Burlington, and Gloucester - have donated to her campaign, according to the latest campaign filings.
Though the state senator has only nominal opposition in the June 4 Democratic primary (Troy Webster, a mayoral aide in East Orange) before the November election against Republican Christie, the longtime legislator from Middlesex County has scant name recognition among southern voters and no significant allies among the region's party leaders.
Perhaps most telling: The state's preeminent political power broker, George E. Norcross III, based in Camden County, hasn't hosted a fund-raiser for her.
That's the first time in nearly a quarter-century he has not raised money for an expected Democratic nominee at this point in a race. Months before the 2001 Democratic primary, Norcross held a $37,000-a-head fund-raiser for then-candidate Jim McGreevey, netting $700,000.
Norcross, chairman of Cooper University Hospital and a managing partner of the company that owns The Inquirer, declined to comment.
Part of the dynamic, political insiders say, is Buono's long-standing frosty and fragile relationships with southern Democratic leaders.
Buono is more liberal than her Democratic colleagues in the south, and after voting against cuts to pension and health benefits for public workers in 2011, she was bounced from her legislative leadership position by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), the highest-ranking elected Democrat in the state.
Now, Sweeney openly opposes Buono's choice for chairman of the state Democratic Party. The battle between forces for and against her pick, Assemblyman Jason O'Donnell (D., Hudson), is turning into a bloody affair, with South Jersey Democratic leaders unified against him.
Meanwhile, only two of the 14 Democratic legislators in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties so far have appeared with Buono at public campaign events in South Jersey.
The Buono campaign has invited the news media to cover only one event in Gloucester and one in Burlington and none in heavily Democratic Camden County, according to a review of her public schedules. That means she has potentially lost out on local TV, radio, newspaper, and online coverage.
Buono has showered attention on Newark, her public schedules show, but not on Camden city.
One Democrat said he was bothered that Buono didn't go south of I-195 on her campaign bus tour earlier this month. Another South Jersey politico griped: "The campaign went dark the day after she announced."
The Buono campaign contested the assertion that it had ignored the region. It said it had done 27 events in Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape, Cumberland, Gloucester, Monmouth, Ocean, and Salem Counties.
The events were public, a spokesman said. But many were not promoted by the campaign before or after.
Attendees, though, say Buono was received warmly in South Jersey. At a dinner for the southern New Jersey chapter of the philanthropic group 100 Black Women, held at the Mansion in Voorhees, president Darlene Walker said Buono got a standing ovation from the 400 women in attendance.
And Logan Township Mayor Frank Minor ticked off five events for African American and church constituencies that he had attended with Buono.
"She has been in South Jersey and has really put a lot of shoe leather in," Minor said.
"I think what you will find in the days and weeks to come is that Democrats will coalesce around Barbara Buono."
But first, there's a vote among party leaders for the Democratic Party chair, scheduled for a week after the June primary. Tradition dictates that the gubernatorial nominee picks the chairman to hold the seat through November, but Buono's choice was part of a failed 2011 coup against the Democratic establishment.
As a result, O'Donnell might face competition from a South Jersey-endorsed candidate.
Publicly, Democrats downplay the fight.
"No matter how much I disagree with her choice for chairman, I know she would sign the minimum-wage bill, I know she would sign the marriage-equality bill, her views on women's health are where mine are," Sweeney said, ticking off campaign issues Buono is running on.
He noted that he recently hosted a fund-raiser for Buono.
"No one is going to see South Jersey take a walk or take a dive, because we won't," he said last week about fund-raising and get-out-the-vote efforts. "It's all hands on deck."
Like other South Jersey Democrats, Sweeney has had a mutually beneficial political relationship and an on-and-off friendship with Christie. But, he said, "I want her to win the governorship. I'm a Democrat. We can disagree . . . but I can't be any clearer: We want her to be successful."
He said her limited financing - Christie has a 3-1 fund-raising advantage - is why she can't air her first TV ad in both the New York and Philadelphia markets. North Jersey has more voters and more Democratic donors, so he understands why the north is a priority.
As for why Sweeney hasn't campaigned with her, as Newark Mayor Cory Booker has, the Senate president said he hadn't been asked. But he'd be happy to, he said.
The would-be party chairman, O'Donnell, also downplayed the party division as "family squabbles." He called Sweeney an icon in the party.
"We're going to work hand-in-hand with South Jersey, the middle part of Jersey, and the northern part," he said.
"I want everybody to come back home to the party."