TRENTON - The Booker Watch is so 2012. We're now on the Codey Watch.

After Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker opted to pursue the U.S. Senate in 2014 instead of Republican Gov. Christie's seat this November, many Democrats turned to a familiar name who already has "governor" on his resumé: State Sen. Richard Codey of Essex County.

Codey is actively pursuing/considering/flirting with a run against Christie. He's headed to Washington on Tuesday to meet with big union leaders and the Democratic Governors Association to ask for guarantees on serious cash ($30 million) if Codey's going to take on Christie and his 70-plus percent approval ratings.

When he was state Senate president, Codey had to take over the governor's office for 14 months after Gov. James E. McGreevey resigned. That gave him high name recognition and sustained popularity, polls show. At the end of his stint, he scratched the word acting from in front of his name on the governor's office door.

Now a mere senator again, Codey still goes by the title "governor." In the book he wrote - Me, Governor? - he showed off the humor and pugnacity that could play particularly well against a funny and pugnacious incumbent.

But it's a winding road back to the big office.

For starters, Democrats already have a major candidate: State Sen. Barbara Buono of Middlesex, whose independent streak endears her to liberals. Despite a few endorsements, Buono's campaign has been thwarted twice: first, as Democrats waited on Booker's decision about running (which took months), and now, as they wait on Codey's decision (which could take another week or two or four).

The reason Democrats haven't yet rallied around Buono is not because she would lose - many Democrats think they're going to lose regardless - but because some fear she'd lose so badly that it would hurt the 120 legislative candidates who would be on the ballot under her name. The party fears losing its hold on the Legislature.

The second reason the Codey Watch is complicated is some believe it might just be a Codey Bluff.

One North Jersey politico said Codey was being a "big tease," while George E. Norcross III, South Jersey's preeminent Democratic power broker, said: "This is nothing more than a big theatrical production. He craves attention."

Norcross, part-owner of the company that owns The Inquirer, has been a Codey nemesis for more than two decades. In fact, he helped orchestrate a 2010 coup that deposed Codey from the Senate presidency - a defeat that the 66-year-old Codey may want to avenge.

Norcross' friend Stephen Sweeney of Gloucester County took over the Senate presidency - and has not, by the way, declared himself out of running for governor either. Neither has U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, a scrappy Democrat in his own right.

One powerful Democrat, State Sen. Raymond Lesniak of Union County, says yes, Codey is thinking about a run. Lesniak backed Codey when he thought about running in 2005, and he's backing him now.

"I understand the thoughts expressed," Lesniak said, "but I'm hoping it's different this time."

A third complication: To get an edge in a Democratic primary, candidates need what's known as "the line" - the top spot on the ballot. That's a decision made by each county party, and the lines that matter are in populous North Jersey.

Will Codey's long-standing relationships with party operatives help him get the lines? Or will Buono's recent overtures to party bosses who dislike Codey give her the edge? (And then there's the matter of Sweeney's recent dinner with Codey . . .)

Once all this is settled, Democrats will turn their attention to beating Christie.

Or not. Because there are other complications: Some of the bigger Democratic bosses have close ties to Christie and may not want him to leave office as badly as the liberal base does.

"Politics is very strange; it has a lot of twists and turns," Lesniak told The Inquirer on Friday. "Who knows what time will produce? . . . We'll just have to wait and see."

Contact Matt Katz
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