BRIDGEWATER, N.J. - The polls on a sleepy gubernatorial primary quietly closed at 8 p.m. Tuesday, and with that the bell rang on what promises to be a far more compelling gubernatorial general election. Republican Gov. Christie, who has become a national political phenomenon in his 3½ years in office, will face Democratic State Sen. Barbara Buono, a longtime legislator with a decidedly liberal streak.
In the primaries Tuesday, Christie easily swatted away a tea party challenger, Atlantic County lawyer Seth Grossman, and Buono cruised past a Democrat who didn't campaign, Troy Webster.
Now, the real fight begins on the road to the Nov. 5 election. In their victory speeches Tuesday night - staged at Central New Jersey hotels 15 minutes apart - Buono and Christie gave a sense of what to expect in the coming months.
"I'm not running against anyone; I'm running for New Jersey," Buono told supporters at a hotel in Edison.
She began her remarks with warm words for the late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg and then attacked Christie on a range of issues, including rising property taxes, relatively high unemployment, lack of state funding for schools, and opposition to marriage equality. She bashed him for cutting funds to Planned Parenthood and not coming out more clearly on climate change.
"We're New Jersey, we're problem solvers, and come Nov. 5 - problem solved!" Buono said.
Like Christie, Buono, who represents Middlesex County, is a lawyer who has long been involved in state politics. But while Christie is the unquestioned leader of his party in the state, Buono is running as something of an outsider; eschewed by party bosses, she says she is running a "grassroots campaign."
Christie, 50, has outraised Buono, 59, by nearly 3-1, and she has become the first major party nominee since public financing began three decades ago to fail to raise enough money to qualify for the maximum available matching funds.
Christie also has more than a 30-point lead in polls despite the fact that the state has 700,000 more Democrats than Republicans.
Political insiders do not believe Buono can overcome those odds, and think Christie is trying to win by as large a margin as possible. That would allow Christie to tell crowds during a possible run in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries that he has an established record of winning over independents and Democrats.
At the Christie victory party, attended by several hundred people in Bridgewater, Christie took the stage with his wife and children and heard chants of "four more years" and the occasional call of "2016."
His remarks mixed anecdotes he often shares in front of large crowds, such as how he still sees his name on his office door and asks, "How the hell did this happen?"
"The message I want to bring to New Jersey over the next four years is if it can happen for me, it can happen for anybody," Christie said.
In a speech that gradually grew in intensity as he spoke, Christie touched on what he described as his successes cutting spending, adding private sector jobs, and increasing New Jerseyans' optimism.
He nationalized his remarks, saying he wishes "with all my heart" that President Obama had lost in November, but there is "opportunity once again to make an example in New Jersey" for Republican leadership. He linked his victory in 2009 to the Republican takeover of Congress in 2010.
The governor never uttered Buono's name - although he mentioned his predecessor, former Gov. Jon S. Corzine, twice. Christie succeeded in turning "Trenton upside down," he said, and "four years later, they're still shaking."
At the polls, Maria Marinelli, a Republican from Gibbsboro, said she voted for Christie in 2009 and was supporting him again this year. She noted his partnership with Obama after Sandy.
"The fact that he is a comrade to the president, that's bipartisanship, and that's the way it should be," she said.
In Cherry Hill, Democrat Theresa Daly, 52, said she was voting for Buono but really voting against Christie. She thinks he's "created a hostile environment toward educators."
"It's more that I don't agree with the governor's style," Daly said, acknowledging she doesn't know much about Buono.