With 11 months until Election Day, the New Jersey governor's race is on.
State Sen. Barbara Buono, 59, a persistent liberal critic of Gov. Christie's, on Tuesday became the first prominent Democrat to declare her candidacy.
The Metuchen, Middlesex County, resident was majority leader — the second-most-powerful position in the Senate — but fell out of favor with her party's establishment last year after opposing a bill, approved by Democrats and signed by Christie, that reduced pensions and benefits for public workers.
"She's going to run as an unabashed liberal. That's her claim to fame, that's where her grassroots support is from," said Patrick Murray, a political analyst at Monmouth University.
Buono's split from the power base allows her to contrast herself with Christie and potential Democratic candidates such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who have supported some of the Republican governor's most significant proposals. She may garner support and money from labor, gay rights, and civil-liberties groups, Murray said.
But her lack of standing will complicate her ability to win in the June primary, because Democratic power brokers control ballot placement and get-out-the-vote operations crucial in party elections.
Buono is a lawyer and an avid runner who is the mother of four and stepmother of two. She has served in the Senate since 2002 and in the Assembly for eight years before that.
Buono did not do interviews Tuesday but released a three-minute introductory video that criticized Christie and Democratic "party bosses."
If she secures the nomination, she will face a governor who, as of now, enjoys approval ratings in the 70 percent range. He also has near-universal name recognition, while Buono is from a part of the state that gets little media coverage.
Buono cited New Jersey's high unemployment rate and property taxes as issues she would address as governor. She said she opposes Christie's proposal to cut income taxes because his formula would benefit the rich. And unlike Christie, she supports gay marriage and funding for Planned Parenthood.
She is the fourth Democrat to enter the race, joining William Araujo, a member of the Edison planning board; Carl Brigmason, mayor of Glen Ridge; and oft-candidate Jeff Boss.
Christie announced his candidacy last month, saying he wanted to stay another four years to guide recovery from Sandy.
His top political strategist, Michael DuHaime, responded to Buono's announcement Tuesday with a statement that offered a preview of the rhetoric that could accompany a Christie-Buono campaign. Buono "represents all the failed policies of yesteryear," having voted for $11 billion in budget increases and $5.5 billion in higher taxes during her tenure, he said.
"Sen. Buono embodies the tax, spend, and borrow policies that chased jobs and wealth out of New Jersey, and has now voted against every bipartisan measure that Gov. Christie has put forward to clean up the mess she made in Trenton," DuHaime said.
Buono is likely to be the only female candidate — a potentially significant attribute, because some polls have shown Christie has weaker support among women.
That distinction also could give her an opening to criticize Christie for his aggressive tone. After the governor summoned legislators to Trenton over the summer to listen to him speak on his tax-cut proposal, Buono quipped: "He almost becomes pathological when he doesn't get what he wants."
As Buono explained in an Inquirer interview in April: "I grew up as a tomboy, and I've never been afraid to stand up to arrogant bullies."
If Buono loses but performs well, Murray said, she could set up support for a run down the road — maybe for U.S. Senate in 2014, or governor in 2017.
"I think, at the end of the day, this is part of Buono's decision to run," he said. "She could run for \[state\] Senate again and win it and be a backbencher, or she could further her political career by making a strong run for the governor's race."
The path to her candidacy was smoothed when the Democratic state chairman, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), announced Saturday that he would not run for governor.
The biggest obstacle to the Democratic nomination, though, will be if the nationally known Booker enters the race. An announcement is expected by next week.
Booker would get establishment support and money from North and South Jersey Democratic power brokers. But he may be criticized over his ability to handle his own City Council.
On Tuesday, Booker suffered a defeat when a judge invalidated his tie-breaking vote to appoint an ally to a vacant Newark council seat. His controversial vote sparked a near-riot in council chambers last month.
The seat now will remain vacant until a special election — a development Booker's team still frames as a victory, because it keeps an anti-Booker member off the council for now.
Newark insider politics may be of little consequence to party members during a statewide primary.
"The issue that a lot of Democratic voters will have when they go to the polls is which one of these candidates is more likely to beat Christie," Murray said.
Yet in a general election, Christie would certainly seek to contrast his ability to deal with Democrats in Trenton to Booker's alleged inability to deal with Democrats in his hometown.
In the lead-up to an announcement about running for governor, Booker has hit the airwaves: He's been on CNN twice, and on Sunday he said on CBS's Face the Nation that Christie was "vulnerable."
On Wednesday, he sits down with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Christie was on last week.