Chris Christie's Opponent, Barbara Buono, Wages Lonely Campaign

Julio Cortez/AP Photo | Kena Betancur/Getty Images

PERTH AMBOY, N.J.- State Sen. Barbara Buono, the woman running against Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey, has a much quieter campaign trail than the GOP star.

It's not just about crowd size, although that is stark as well. High profile Democrats have parachuted in to campaign for her, including Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, and Chair of the Democratic National Committee Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. But it's much lonelier when you look at the big names about to campaign for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe. Both Clintons have already hit the road for their old friend, and the president and vice president will stump with him Sunday and Monday.

And of course, big names bring the chance at bigger dollars.

"All I would say is, it would have been nice to have more support," Buono said, referring to national Democratic groups. "I have a lot of support from other validators outside the state like Deval Patrick … but yes, it would have been better if I had more financial support."

The president famously appeared with Christie days before the 2012 election in the wake of superstorm Sandy, angering some Republicans. They appeared together again in May on a South Jersey boardwalk. Buono also met the president that day, but it was a private event with a larger group of people.

Buono knows that because Christie and third-party groups working on Christie's behalf had money earlier, they were able to go on the air early in the state and "tried to define her." New Jersey is one of the most expensive places to run ads in the country because it's two markets, New York City and Philadelphia, are both pricey.

Christie has a two to one polling advantage, but the Republican National Committee says they have 40 staffers on the ground in the Garden State, including two focused solely on Hispanic voter outreach.

In comparison, there is only one national Democratic staffer on the ground in the state, according to a Democratic source, sent from the Democratic National Committee. The DNC confirms that Regena Thomas has been working as a "senior advisor" to both the party and the campaign for the "better part of a year." The DNC also says their communications and political departments have worked with the campaign throughout the election.

"New Jersey residents have been hurt by Chris Christie and his policies," DNC spokesperson Michael Czin said. "He promised a 'comeback,' but 400,000 residents remain out of work, the foreclosure rate remains the second highest in the nation and property taxes continue to rise." Buono, on the other hand, adds Czin, "has spent her entire career fighting for working families by supporting investments in public education, access to quality health care for those who need it most and has a proven record to strengthen the state's faltering economy."

Buono says Emily's List was "unparalleled in their support," but the group, which supports Democratic pro-choice candidates, wouldn't comment on how much money they have put into her campaign.

Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime New York City Democratic operative who's worked on New Jersey races, said national Democrats "probably should have become engaged and gone after Christie…. They probably did not do it because he has a reasonably good relationship with the president of the United States."

And there's the question of resource allocation. "It is not unlikely that his own party will be attacking him for being too liberal," Sheinkopf noted, adding Democrats may be thinking "don't use money you need later, let them eat their own in 2016."

In the meantime, though, Christie's likely big win will show national Democrats that he can win "blue collar Catholics" and Democrats in a "blue state."

"That's the argument Christie will use to try and run for president, then he will go to South Carolina and get his brains kicked in … that's the way the Democrats are possibly thinking. Whether it's true or not is not the issue because everything changes in politics every 30 seconds," Sheinkopf said.

Buono says her opponent uses politics as "a vanity project" and calls him "the great distractor." On the campaign trail Thursday a dozen people - a few aides, a few reporters, a handful of supporters - showed up to support the petite candidate who calls herself "tenacious" and "dogged" and has served her state since 1994, becoming the first woman to serve as chair of the state senate's Budget Committee and the first woman to serve as that body's majority leader. She is now the first female Democratic gubernatorial nominee in the state's history.

She may seem more mild mannered than Christie, and her petite frame is a striking contrast to the governor's, but she's tough. Buono was born in Newark and grew up in Nutley, N.J., putting herself through college and law school with help from education loans, grants, and Social Security death benefits after her father, an Italian immigrant who worked as a butcher, died when she was 19, leaving her on her own.

Her "entire life has been an uphill battle," she said at a press conference on Thursday. "I am the little guy, I am the underdog…. This is a piece of cake compared to living on the edge of that financial abyss."

In her campaign, she has focused on issues including lowering the cost of higher education, more access to health care for low-income women, gun control, and same-sex marriage, which became legal in the state earlier this month.

She's well aware of her opponent's likely presidential aspirations. "I'm not running for president, I'm running for governor," she told ABC News on Thursday.

The poll mentioned above from Quinnipiac University also reported that New Jersey voters would like to see their governor run for president in 2016, 48 to 41 percent. It has Christie leading 64 percent to Buono's 31 percent.

Buono's first event Thursday at her alma mater Montclair State University focused on funding for both K through 12 and higher education, and she promised the crowd of about 12 that she would be the "education governor."

The second stop was at a larger, but still modest rally in Perth Amboy to raise the minimum wage.

Fran Ehret, a union worker from Jamesburg, called herself a "diehard" supporter of Buono's.

"I think Sen. Buono is the only candidate that is really standing up for working class people," Ehret said.

She said she thinks it's "overstated" how many Democrats support Christie, but she says she is "upset" national Democrats didn't put more into the campaign.

"I think they are very shortsighted," Ehret said, noting she believes Christie will run for president. "They should have gotten more involved in this race because he is going to be looking at the next step."

Buono says the time she has spent in other states, such as California, where she made a fundraising trip, makes her know voters there "understand that Chris Christie is a threat."

"They know he wants to run for president and honestly it doesn't really bother me that he's running. It's how he's running and what he's doing to the people of New Jersey," Buono said, citing his opposition to gun control and same sex marriage. "All his decisions are based upon not what's best for New Jersey, it's about what's best for himself. It's always about promoting Chris Christie, there's nobody who is more infatuated with Chris Christie than himself and he's used politics essentially as a vanity project."

"He goes on late-night television and he is very quick with the quip," Buono said. "He's very good at packaging himself as something he's not, but when people start paying attention, let me tell you if and when he runs for president people will start paying attention … they will know what Chris Christie is all about … that's the disadvantage of not having the money earlier to communicate that."

As for the 59 elected Democrats in the state that have publicly backed her opponent she says some of the "Democratic mayors are afraid of this governor…. He's got one of the most powerful governorships in the nation, he's got the purse strings."

The Christie campaign responded to Buono by saying she has "used the same negative, empty attacks because she has no vision of her own and no record to run on."

"The governor has been a bipartisan leader who has fought for and achieved some of the biggest, most sweeping reforms New Jersey has seen in years," Christie campaign spokesperson Kevin Roberts said. "And he's done it by working across the aisle to get it accomplished - exactly what people want and expect. Sen. Buono is a Trenton partisan who represents broken politics. That's why she's hemorrhaging support from her own party, including 59 elected Democrat officeholders, and from just about every constituency imaginable."

Election Day is Tuesday and Christie is currently on a bus tour through the home stretch that will make 46 stops throughout the state. Buono will be in her hometown of Metuchen on Tuesday night, while Christie is planning a big bash in famous Asbury Park, hometown of his largely unrequited love, Bruce Springsteen.