It's been said that the Presidential campaign is a mere warm up act for the hottest of all political contests that takes place every four years—the New Jersey governorship.
A potential battle royal is looming for Jersey's top job between incumbent Governor Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Coy Booker. A Christie/Booker match-up would pit two political stars of New Jersey, both of whom have gained significant national prominence, against each other in a clash of titans.
"It would be a very evenhanded race," said former Governor Jim Florio. "Cory has a 50/50 chance against Christie, but I would tell the Governor the same thing," he said.
Booker is weighing the concerns that most ambitious young mayors face when mulling their political aspirations. Would he serve the public better as an executive or as a legislator, becoming one of 100 Senators?
It's possible that Christie's new poll numbers will discourage a competitive challenger in 2013. Still, Booker represents the Democrats best chance to unseat the Republican governor in this very blue state.
In the latest Quinnipiac University poll Tuesday, Christie’s job-approval rating climbed to a record 72%. It's the highest score ever measured in a Quinnipiac poll for a New Jersey governor. On Monday, a Fairleigh Dickinson University Public Mind poll gave Christie a 77% approval rating.
A Christie adviser told the AP yesterday that the Governor plans to seek re-election. “I’m in this race and I’m in it to win,” the governor said later in the day to applause in a Port Monmouth firehouse, where he thanked firefighters, rescue workers, and volunteers for helping Sandy victims.
"He's in a good spot and his approvals are through the roof," said former Governor Christine Todd Whitman. "He wants to lock in his legacy and get things done now," she said.
Christie's style, for better or worse, has served him well in a state known for its blunt force political environment, said Florio, who served as governor between 1989 and 1993 before losing to Whitman.
"People feel he's very clear about what it is he stands for and what it is he's against," Florio said. "But, they also aren't used to politicians calling people out or calling them liars," he said, referring to Christie's infamous 2010 spat with his former Education Commissioner, Brett Schundler.
Christie's confrontational and sometimes aggressive approach suits him well in a political age when toughness and thick skin is required for the brutality and, often personally nasty, 21st century campaigning.
"You don't have opponents anymore," said Florio, a one-time amateur boxer. "You have enemies."
One thing Florio and his former rival Whitman agree on today is the future of the charismatic Mayor from Newark.
"He's the best candidate the Democrats have," Whitman said. "He'll clear the field no matter what he does."
It's unclear whether Booker will take the plunge to run against the popular Christie or wait to see if Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg retires in 2014, leaving an opening for the mayor to run for the U.S. Senate instead.
"Cory is already seeking commitments for the governor's race," said one prominent Democrat close to Booker who asked not to be named.
Another source who has advised and worked for Democratic candidates in New Jersey for decades said "I'd be shocked if Booker ran for Governor, but he sure is capable of out of the box decisions."
Being Governor of New Jersey is a particularly unique position where it's leader can accomplish a lot.
"Constitutionally, it's the most powerful Governorship in all of the 50 states," Whitman said.
"It's the center of gravity for New Jersey politics, even more central to power than U.S. Senate seats,” said a New Jersey Democratic operative close to Booker and Lautenberg.
Booker has a reputation for being fiscally moderate, which comes with the responsibility of being a Mayor and balancing a budget, but also a modern day progressive when it comes to equality and other social values issues.
But, he also faces challenges in his home town of Newark. Last week, Booker angered city council members and sparked mayhem at a meeting when he cast the deciding vote for a vacant council seat.
Christie faces hurdles of his own—the state faces a budget shortfall that will need to be balanced, a clash over state employee health benefits and a decision whether to join the joint state-federal exchanges is waiting.
While he has received near universal praise for his leadership through Hurricane Sandy, the Governor now faces the demands and urgency all executives face in the aftermath of natural disasters. Even Whitman acknowledges that navigating "storm politics" can be tricky.
"When people have lost everything, you can't do enough for them fast enough," She said. "It's going to get tough."
Instead of challenging the popular Christie, said Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, Booker should wait to run for the Senate because he would likely be the Democrats best hope to hold Senator Lautenberg's seat, should he retire.
"You have to have credibility and money," Shrum said. "Booker has both of those and a built-in base," he said.
Lautenberg, 90, one of Christie's fiercest critics, has faced tough races and has been written off in the past. Yet, he has overcome past health problems and been coy about his retirement plans.
Whitman, a Republican, believes Lautenberg's greatest vulnerability in 2014 would come in the face of primary challenge from Booker.
"All you have to do is look at Milli Fenwick," the former Governor said, referring to the popular Bernardsville Congresswoman who lost to Lautenberg by four points in a heated 1982 Senate race.
In that campaign, Lautenberg took unveiled swipes at the 72-year-old Fenwick's age, quoting former President Gerald Ford as saying that Fenwick was “a little eccentric.” He also said it was up to voters to determine Fenwick's fitness to serve. At the time Lautenberg was criticized for injecting age as a campaign issue.
His 2008 primary opponent, Rep. Rob Andrews, tried this strategy and ran a TV ad using the Senator's words from 1982 against him.
Andrews lost to Lautenberg by 23 percentage points.