Chris Christie Challenger Barbara Buono Lost Amid Obama Fanfare

Don't forget about challenger Barbara Buono as Christie, Obama tour New Jersey.

May 29, 2013, 8:17 AM

May 29, 2013 -- While President Obama played arcade games Tuesday with Gov. Chris Christie at the New Jersey shore, there was no sign of the Democrat who's challenging Christie for governor.

Instead, state Sen. Barbara Buono was reduced to tweeting, "@BuonoForNJGov It was great to meet with @BarackObama today as we cheer the shore's re-opening: a testament to all we accomplish when we work together. –BB"

Even that appears to be a stretch, given that Buono was part of a group of about 30 state and local officials, Democrats and Republicans, who met with the president Tuesday before he spoke in Asbury Park, N.J., according to a pool report.

So goes the overshadowed, long-shot challenge that Buono is waging against a Republican governor who has no qualms about cozying up to a Democratic president to the benefit of New Jerseyans still in need of post-Superstorm Sandy assistance.

READ MORE: The Note: Jersey Shore Edition

Obama seems to be equally smitten with Christie, so it's Buono who stands to lose the most politically absent any resounding endorsement from the president, which seems to matter little to Obama and, of course, even less to Christie, political observers say.

"It's certainly a slap in the face to Democrats in the state of New Jersey to spend more time with the Republican gubernatorial candidate than his Democratic challenger and you don't raise money for the Democratic challenger," said New York City Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who has worked on campaigns in New Jersey.

"Presidents don't do anything accidental because their time is valuable. … The Republican opponent means more to this president than the Democratic challenger. It's something Democrats won't forget."

Sheinkopf added that it's a "clear way to talk to Republicans and showing the president wants to be bi-partisan and it will be seen as unfair to potential presidential candidates like [N.Y. Gov.] Andrew Cuomo and [Maryland Gov.] Martin O'Malley. It's not helpful to Democrats and the grousing will continue until the president's term ends."

The pool report, citing a senior administration official, said there was a photo line Tuesday for the group of state and local officials, but no separate meeting between Obama and Buono.

The White House has yet to respond to a request for comment.

Christie introduced Obama Tuesday on their political odd-couple trip to the Jersey Shore six months after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the region. It was a reunion of sorts after Christie stood next to him in the wake of Sandy days before the November election, praising the president, which earned Christie some harsh words at the time from some Republicans.

In his introduction, Christie embraced a bipartisan message, saying that the concern for the people of New Jersey and the desire to get people back to the shore means more than politics.

"Everybody came together, Republicans, Democrats, independents," Christie said. "We all came together because New Jersey is more important and our citizens' lives are more important than any kind of politics at all.

The images of Christie and Obama hanging out together can only help his re-election in the blue state, but even before he spent part of the day playing carnival games and touting their work together re-building the shore, Buono, 59, had a tough mountain to climb.

The most recent poll from NBC News-Marist out earlier this month has Christie beating Buono by 32 points, 59 percent to 27 percent.

In an interview with ABC News before the president's trip, Buono said she is always asked why she wants to run against Christie and her answer is, "How could I not run?"

"Look at the shape our state is in," Buono said. "The middle class has been shrinking since Chris Christie took office and the New Jersey I grew up in, the New Jersey where I had opportunities and it was a place where if you worked hard enough that anything was possible and I had those opportunities and I think that they're slipping away."

Buono has served in the New Jersey state Senate since 2002 and before that as a member of the state legislature since 1994. She served as the chair of the Budget Committee, the first woman to do so before becoming majority leader in the state Senate, also the first woman in that role.

She was born in Newark and grew up in Nutley, N.J., putting herself through college and law school with some help from education loans, grants, and Social Security death benefits after her father, an Italian immigrant who was a butcher, died when she was 19. She's married and the mother of four.

Despite the polling numbers, Christie has not one but two ads running in the state's expensive media markets of New York City and Philadelphia against Buono, trying to paint her as in lockstep with former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, as well as accusing her of raising taxes and fees. Corzine lost to Christie in 2009.

He's also the former CEO of brokerage firm MF Global, which went bankrupt in 2011, prompting an investigation into Corzine's role in the collapse. It's easy to see why Christie wants to paint them with the same brush.

In her defense, Buono, like other state Democrats, cites the unemployment rate, property taxes and the cost of higher education among other reasons for why Christie doesn't deserve another term. They also point to his stances on social issues, noting that he is against same-sex marriage and abortion rights.

"He refused tens of millions of federal dollars for women's healthcare, causing Planned Parenthood facilities across New Jersey to close, making it harder for women to get basic healthcare," Buono said. "I take that personally. For me it's not just public policy ... because when I was at Montclair State, I was on my own, put myself through school. I relied on Planned Parenthood for my primary health care. That's where I had my checkups."

Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts called Buono "the architect of Jon Corzine's budgets."

"Barbara Buono was part and parcel of the policies and decisions that brought New Jersey to the brink of catastrophe," Roberts said in a statement, noting the taxes and fees she oversaw as budget chair. "That's her record, which is why she isn't talking about it and why she isn't gaining traction."

Buono wasn't the first choice for Democrats. They had held out hope that Newark Mayor Cory Booker would run against Christie, 50, but he decided to pursue a U.S. Senate bid instead. Buono says she would have run whether Booker got in.

Despite the increasingly nasty race, Buono says she still has time to increase her name recognition and gain in the polls calling Christie's high polling numbers "artificially inflated" in the "aftermath of Sandy," saying "that's a good thing that people came together and helped one another, to rebuild after Sandy."

"As I've been out on the trail, as they say, and talking to voters. Every time I meet people it just seems as though my message is resonating, my vision for New Jersey to restore the promise and the hope that really was what New Jersey was all about when I was growing up," Buono said.

"As I get out there and increasingly connect with voters in a very grassroots campaign, that gap will close," Buono explained of polls and gap in name recognition. "This governor has made the wrong decisions to bring back the New Jersey that I grew up in."

Besides the polling disparity, there is a big fundraising difference as well. Christie has raised $6.5 million to Buono's $2.3 million, which includes more than $1 million in privately raised funds and then the rest in state matching funds.

Buono said she will be "competitive financially," but noted that having the same amount of money doesn't always matter in New Jersey.

"Chris Christie was outspent three-to-one by Gov. Corzine and we saw how far that went," Buono said. "This governor does have a national persona; he's spent a lot of time outside of New Jersey for three years, criss-crossing back and forth in pursuit of really his national ambitions and so the fact that he is known on a wider, a broader scale than just in New Jersey has focused national interest on the campaign."

Buono has been endorsed by and getting help from national liberal groups like Democracy for America and Emily's List, as well as the Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic National Committee. Although most won't comment on how much money they are willing to dump into the uphill battle, it's clear that it's not just about this race and they are looking toward 2016.

DFA, Howard Dean's liberal PAC, officially backed Buono last week and although it has no plans to put money behind the endorsement, it says the official backing is more "about activating our boots on the ground in the state."

Emily's List, known for backing female candidates who support abortion rights, is helping to draw attention to the race, as well sending out fundraising emails. It wouldn't comment on any financial help.

"Chris Christie wears national ambitions on his sleeve. He goes on late-night TV shows and rubs elbows with the GOP's biggest figures, but has little to say about the mess on his hands at home in New Jersey," Emily's List press secretary Marcy Stech said. "His numbers are upside down on jobs and taxes, which New Jersey voters say are the most important issues in this election."

The Democratic Governors Association says it helped the Buono campaign get off the ground, connect it with donors, and help hire staff, and says it will only help national Democrats to support Buono, now and looking toward 2016.

"The longer this race goes, and the closer this race becomes the more [Christie] will feel compelled to moderate his positions and hide who he really is, which has obvious benefits to national Democrats who have fears for his presidential race because it will make him unpalatable to early primary state voters," a DGA aide said.

The aide also wouldn't comment on exactly how much financial help group leaders will be giving, except to say they "expect to help."

An outside superpac called "One New Jersey" is spending almost two million dollars on the race, running three anti-Christie television ads in the state.

"They see this as a competitive campaign that's going to become a horse race by the time we hit October," Buono said of the groups, adding that she knows that gap won't close in terms of outside money.

"While we will never have as much money as Chris Christie as he goes around the country collecting favors from the three years he campaigned for far-right Republican candidates, including Mitt Romney, we will be competitive," Buono said.

Buono's communications director, David Turner, wouldn't comment on the specific national help they are getting, to avoid tipping off Christie, but said the groups "provided support" in giving the campaign "the right structure to be at a full-throttle governor's campaign," as well as staff help, saying the goal he's hearing from national Democrats is that they are "interested in getting a Democratic governor elected in the Democratic state of New Jersey."

"I fully understand that Chris Christie is a national figure and ... everybody can read the speculation that happens about 2016," Turner said. "But what we're focused on, what we're trying to do is win this election. … I don't think anyone in New Jersey wants the state to be used as a stepping zone."

As for what a Buono victory would mean for Christie's possible presidential ambitions, she won't speculate."I try not to focus on all the chatter that's going on," Buono said.

"And I'm not saying that it shouldn't go on; I mean, that's politics. People like to talk. People like to speculate. People like to second guess, but I don't have enough time to really think about that."

ABC News' Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.

This story has been updated since it was first posted.

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