New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his Democratic challenger state Sen. Barbara Buono faced off this evening in their first debate, and even though they were battling over whether there would be a new resident in the statehouse the topic of a much higher office kept coming up.
When the Republican governor was asked directly whether he was going to run for president, Christie did not rule it out, at first joking that he "didn't anticipate" the question at all.
"Listen my mother told me a long time ago … do the job you have at the moment the best you possibly can and the future will take care of itself," Christie said at the debate this evening at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. "The fact is there have been people talking about me running for president since 2010 and they all said I would do it in 2012 and I said I wouldn't and I didn't. And the fact is after 2017 I'm going to be looking for another job anyway.
"I'm going to continue to do my job the best way I possibly can and I am not going to declare tonight … that I am or I am not running for president and you know what? People don't expect me to, they expect me to do my job," he said.
Christie was then pressed by the moderator for WCBS-TV in New York City as to why people should vote for him if he can't make a commitment for four years. Christie responded that he will continue to "work as hard" for New Jersey residents.
"I don't think anybody in America or in the state of New Jersey expects anybody three years away to tell them what they are going to do. Life's too long," Christie said. "I won't make those decisions until I have to."
Buono responded to Christie saying it "doesn't bother me that you are running for president, it bothers me how you are running for president," accusing Christie's veto of gun control laws in the state as "cater(ing) to the NRA" and "vetoing funding for Planned Parenthood … because the national conservative base of the Republican Party has declared this war on Planned Parenthood."
She added that Christie is "compromising and sacrificing the dignity of our gay brothers and sisters by vetoing marriage equality because you know that would kill you" with Republican presidential primary voters.
Christie hit back saying, "the only person obsessed with 2016 on this stage is Sen. Buono.."
"I can walk and chew gum at the same time," he said. "I can do this job and also deal with my future."
The most recent poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University from earlier this month shows Christie with a 33 point lead 58 percent to 25 percent.
The debate began with an acknowledgment of those numbers, with the moderator asking Buono why her campaign hasn't gained "traction." That sparked the discussion of the topic of the governor's personality, both the humorous and tough talking sides.
"Don't let the glossy magazine covers and the late night wise cracks fool you, there is nothing that's funny about what is going in New Jersey and there is no amount of YouTube videos or late night shows that will erase that we have 400,000 people out of work," Buono said. "Politics is not supposed to be about entertainment. This is about you, your life and your children."
Buono added that she thinks "people are just beginning to focus on the race," but when asked directly whether she would like President Obama to come to New Jersey to campaign with her she answered, "I'm focused on the people of New Jersey."
"There's only one person up that's running for governor here, and you're looking at her," Buono said, another jab at Christie's possible presidential ambitions.
Christie was then asked about his history of calling both constituents and other politicians names like "stupid" and "idiot," and whether because of that language he is "sapping the dignity out of the governor's office."
"No," he said. "In fact, quite the opposite. What the people of New Jersey want is someone who's real, and will tell them the truth as he sees it, and that's what I've done for four years. And that's what I've done - told them the truth. Sometimes truth they didn't necessarily want to hear, but that's what leadership is about…it's about telling the truth as you see it.
"At the end of the day from my perspective I think if people had a choice between pre-packaged, blow dried politicians or people who just say it the way it is I think they would take the latter," he said.
He said his sometimes-blunt language was not disrespectful because "sometimes folks have to know that people who act in a certain way, that they're going to be called out on it."
"Here's what the people of New Jersey all know - I am who I am and I'm not going to change," Christie said.
Christie and Buono also faced off on the issue of same-sex marriage. Last month, Mercer County Superior Court judge Mary Jacobson ruled New Jersey must begin allowing same-sex marriages by Oct. 21 and Christie has said he plans to appeal that decision. He said tonight that "people of good will" can have differences on this issue, but it should be brought to the people of New Jersey in a referendum.
"I believe that the institution of marriage for 2,000 years is between a man and a woman, and if they're going to change that definition of marriage, I don't think that should be decided by 121 politicians in Trenton or nine judges on the Supreme Court," he said, adding if New Jersey residents vote in favor of gay marriage he would support the ruling.
Buono, whose daughter is gay, said Christie was wrong.
"It's a human right," Buono said. "I mean governor, have a profile in courage and do the right thing for our sons and daughters and our brothers and our sisters…It is a human right, and this really should not be the one the ballot. We should not have the majority of people deciding the minority's rights."
At one point the candidates were allowed to ask each other a question and Buono asked Christie his views on the Supreme Court's ruling in June that dealt a blow to the Voting Rights Act, something Christie has been asked several times since the ruling, but has dodged.
Christie answered he has "not moved one inch to restrict people's right to vote," but again did not weigh in on the decision saying, "I'd rather, instead of giving opinions, rather let my conduct show what my record is and my conduct is this, we're encouraging people to vote."
In a lighter moment towards the end of the debate, the candidates were asked whether they had every voted for a member of the opposing party. Buono said "no," she had never cast a ballot for a Republican and Christie also said he had never voted for Democrat, but quipped: "I haven't, but I'm hopeful."
On a more serious note, they both also said they would release their medical records. Christie has faced continued questions about his health and underwent weight loss surgery in February. The governor was noticeably thinner at the debate tonight.
Buono and Christie will face off again in their second and final debate next week.