WAYNE, N.J. - In the first debate between candidates who disagree on just about everything, Gov. Christie on Tuesday presented a positive view of an economically strong New Jersey recovering from Hurricane Sandy while his challenger, State Sen. Barbara Buono, described a state struggling under "Romney-style" economics and far-right social conservatism.
The one-hour debate at William Paterson University, aired live on CBS3, began with a heavy focus on gay marriage, which Buono, a Democrat, supports and the Republican governor opposes, before moving on to property taxes, the minimum wage, and the Affordable Care Act.
Buono sought to frame Christie as a governor committed to running for president - an assertion that Christie didn't exactly deny - while Christie described Buono as a tax-and-spend partisan in the mold of former Gov. Jon S. Corzine. On that issue, Buono did not respond to Christie's challenge to walk back one of the 154 tax and fee increases she voted for as an assemblywoman and later as a state senator.
Buono is down as much as 33 points in polls and suffering from a severe cash disadvantage, so the debate was seen as her best opportunity to introduce herself to voters and land punches on the popular incumbent. Although she dropped a few zingers, Christie didn't commit gaffes, and the debate lacked the sound bites that can go viral via social media.
Buono's most effective line may have come when she referenced Christie's explanations for issues such as the state's lagging economy: "The fact is, Governor, you have to man up. You have been in office for four years. It's time to own your record and defend your record."
In another attack, Buono asked Christie to "show a profile in courage and do the right thing for our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters," and support gay marriage. Christie wants the matter decided by voters.
On the minimum wage hike proposal, which Christie vetoed, Buono described the current rate as a "starvation wage." "This governor's veto is just a reflection of him protecting the millionaires and the wealthy and turning his back on the working class and the poor, and this is a hallmark of this administration," she said.
Christie said Buono rejected his compromise plan to gradually increase the wage over three years - which he said would protect jobs.
He framed himself as a responsible fiscal steward, saying he had approved an effective cap on property taxes. If he were to win another term, Christie said, he pledged to end public workers' cashing in unused sick pay and break down civil service protections so governmental entities can share services.
Christie said Democrats, including Buono, left him an unbalanced budget when he came into office in 2010. "Believe me, everybody, if you give her the opportunity to have this position, taxes will increase again and again and again and again," Christie said.
Asked if he would run for president, Christie didn't say no. He noted that the presidential question has swirled around him since 2010 and he has continued to do his job.
"I can walk and chew gum at the same time," he said. "I can do this job and also deal with my future."
Buono sought to frame the presidential issue in a different light, saying Christie's ambitions were dictated by far-right conservatives who vote in presidential primaries - and that is why he had repeatedly rejected government funding for Planned Parenthood and gun-control laws.
Given an opportunity to give an opinion about the Supreme Court opinion on the Voting Rights Act - which stripped protections for minorities - Christie instead talked about how he supports access to voting.
Buono and Christie disagreed on other issues. She is for decriminalizing marijuana; he is not. She said thousands are suffering from Christie administration inefficiencies in distributing Sandy aid; he said the state has made a remarkable turnaround from the storm under his stewardship, and the federal government is to blame for any problems.
Buono got tripped up on a softball question about her favorite music. Asked whether she preferred Bruce Springsteen or Bon Jovi, she said she liked R&B. Asked what her favorite R&B song was, she said she didn't know, adding: "I love Beyoncé."
Hours after the debate, one clip picked up popularity online. Asked to name something positive about the other candidate, Buono said, "He's good on late-night TV; he's just not so good in New Jersey."
Christie, on the other hand, praised Buono as a mother and public servant.