Dec. 11, 2012— -- It would be the main event of 2013. New Jersey has two of the most talented, high-profile young politicians in the country -- Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker -- and they may be on a collision course.
One is the brash, tough-talking, union-challenging Republican governor with sky-high approval ratings in a blue state. The other is the vegetarian do-gooder mayor who shovels snow on request from Twitter, undertook a "food stamp challenge" to raise awareness about hunger and once ran into a burning building to save a neighbor.
It is not certain that Booker will challenge Christie, who is seeking reelection as governor. But the decision could come at any time and the prospect has political watchers salivating.
The Newark mayor, social media phenom, and rising Democratic star is obviously thinking about it. He called Christie "vulnerable" Monday.
"We think to any Democrat Christie is vulnerable, as it should be, because there's a lot of issues in the state he's not falling in line with, from women's issues, environmental issues, from really going in a balanced way," Booker told CNN.
Sounds like he's in, but he's also considering a run for U.S. Senate in 2014, saying Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation" that he will make his decision "within the next two weeks or so because, especially in New Jersey, there's a lot of good candidates for governor on the Democratic side."
One thing that has to be playing into Booker's decision is Christie's sky-high approval ratings since Hurricane Sandy ravaged his state. Booker, for his part,just completed a food stamp challenge -- spending just over $29 for food from Dec. 4 to Dec. 10.
A Quinnipiac poll late last month showed 67 percent of New Jersey voters saying Christie deserved reelection; 25 percent disagreed. In a match-up with Booker, Christie prevailed, 53 percent to 35 percent.
Booker's high name recognition in the state assured that he dominated the Democratic field in the poll. Booker received 41 percent, followed by State Sen. Richard Codey with 12 percent. No other candidate got more than four percent in the poll. Codey is former New Jersey state senate president and he became the accidental governor of the state in 2004, when Gov. Jim McGreevey resigned after revealing he was gay and had had an affair with another man.
Not waiting for Booker's decision, on Tuesday Democratic State Sen. Barbara Buono announced she is jumping into the race. She has been in state government for twenty years and while praising the state for the "bipartisan way " it faced Sandy in her campaign announcement, she blasted Christie for "policies that have landed New Jersey 47th out of 50 states for economic growth."
If Booker decides to run for the U.S. Senate instead, the 43-year-old will be taking on 88-year-old Frank Lautenberg, who has already said he will run for re-election in 2014. Unless he changes his mind there would be a high profile primary. Booker was a very visible surrogate for President Obama in the 2012 campaign, but at one point he said the president's attacks on Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital were "nauseating" -- and Lautenberg, who could have smoothed things over, instead called Booker's comment "sabotage."
Lautenberg also accused Booker of being "out of town," often giving speeches.
"Newark needs a hands-on kind of leadership, and it's not getting the attention," Lautenberg said in the Roll Call interview, hinting that if there is a primary it could be nasty.
As for Christie, Booker actually has a good working relationship with the governor. They have consistently praised each other and even filmed a tongue-in-cheek video together in May that made fun of Christie's prospects as Mitt Romney's vice president, as well as Booker's hero past. The mayor once ran into a burning house to rescue neighbors from a fire.
Cory Booker vs. Chris Christie in New Jersey?
Longtime New York City Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who has worked on New Jersey races, said he believes Booker will run for the U.S. Senate, not take on Christie.
"Why? It makes the most sense," Sheinkopf said. "The governor is hard to beat and Lautenberg is older and it will pressure Lautenberg to get out of the game."
Sheinkopf noted that "Booker is not unpopular" and Lautenberg would have the "race of his life at close to 90 years old. Does he want to do that?"
Sheinkopf said Christie also got a boost from his relationship with President Obama, an ostensible adversary, in the days after Hurricane Sandy pounded New Jersey. Just days before the 2012 election, Christie called the president "outstanding."
"There is no substitute for Christie and Obama walking together," Sheinkopf said. "The video will be playing over and over again ... Christie has been beatified by the population of New Jersey because of his Sandy response and his extraordinary personality during this crisis."
As for the likely pressure Booker is sure to receive to try and topple Christie, especially in light of the Republican governor's possible 2016 presidential aspirations, Sheinkopf said he shouldn't buckle.
"There will be pressure for Democrats to go after Christie because of 2016, but if Booker loses he is a crippled mayor of a crippled city," Sheinkopf said.
As Booker is deciding, Christie doesn't seem to be sweating it.
"Cory will make his decision when he makes his decision. I'm not worried about it, concerned about it, I've got a job to do," Christie said at a press conference, according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger. "Unfortunately for me I don't have the luxury of playing politics right now. I have a job to do and I'm doing my job."
This story has been updated since it was originally posted.