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Defining the game

As Democrats seek a candidate, Christie seeks their constituencies.

NJ Governor Chris Christie
NJ Governor Chris ChristieRead more

As New Jersey Democrats search for a savior to lead them back to the comfy confines of the governor's mansion in Princeton, Republicans have theirs in Chris Christie.

And his campaign for reelection is well under way.

Christie has announced his intention to run for reelection in 2013, and he will formally launch a campaign next year. Yet he is already trying to secure support in key demographics - like labor and Latinos - to give him a head start in beating back a Democratic challenge in this blue state.

Democrats, meanwhile, are still looking for candidates. Just one major Democrat has declared: State Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex). Although she poses a stark contrast to Christie - she was once dubbed the "anti-Christie" in this space - the longtime legislator has not been aligned with the Democratic power brokers who get out the vote. She's more liberal, for one thing, and has shown a willingness to go her own way.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who once saved a neighbor from a burning house, was supposed to save Democrats from Christie and his 70-plus percent approval ratings. Then, on Dec. 18, with nearly 11 months to go before Election Day, Christie was endorsed by the 20,000-strong Laborers' International Union of North America. Two days later, Booker, a former football player at Stanford, punted. He's going to try for the Senate in 2014 instead.

The construction union, which can be a force with Election Day boots on the ground and cash for TV ads, endorsed Christie's Democratic opponent, former Gov. Jon S. Corzine, in 2009. Unions may seem like a natural Democratic constituency, but Christie has long known he needs to make inroads into D territory to keep his job.

So even as Christie has demonized public worker unions as a strain on taxpayers' pocketbooks, he has opened that pocketbook for trade unions - securing tax breaks to restart construction at the $2.4 billion Revel Casino and the $3.7 billion American dream complex at the Meadowlands. Both meant jobs for unionized laborers.

"Frankly, to be successful in New Jersey as a Republican, you have to appeal to a large swath of independent voters and Democrats as well," said Michael DuHaime, Christie's political consultant. "And the governor does that."

After the union endorsement, and in the absence of a bona fide Democratic candidate, up stepped John Wisniewski, chairman of the state Democrats. He said the endorsement was a thank-you gift from Raymond Pocino, union vice president, after Christie reappointed him a commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

"The fact remains that this governor's policies have hurt the working people of New Jersey," he said.

Pocino, in a statement of his own, responded that his gig at the Port Authority was "not a political plum . . .. Things are said by people when feelings are hurt, but I have learned to have a thick skin to such baseless accusations."

The campaign clearly has begun - with Christie charting the course.

Christie also was making a case this month to another demographic that Republicans have long coveted: Hispanics. Last week, his office called Hispanic leaders to invite them to a news conference, according to one invitee, but it didn't tell those invited what the event was about.

Turns out Christie was bypassing the Legislature and appointing Martin Perez, president of the state Latino Leadership Alliance, to the Rutgers board of governors. An exuberant crowd of Latinos flanked Christie as the governor accused Democrats of disrespecting the "entire Latino community."

That even as other Latino leaders were accusing Christie of the same thing - for failing to fund Hispanic-focused social programs and not appointing enough Hispanics.

But Christie led the news. Such is the power of incumbency - and appointments.

"The kid with the most toys on the block is the most popular kid - and that's the governor," said Ben Dworkin, Rider University political scientist.

It's not just the toys, though. Christie is making the opening moves in the whole game.