By STEVE PEOPLES
A second term all but assured, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is casting himself as an inclusive Republican who transcends political lines and a pragmatic leader whose results-oriented approach offers valuable lessons for dysfunctional party leaders in Washington.
It’s a closing message that doubles as the opening argument for a prospective presidential run. But a resounding victory Tuesday in a Democratic-leaning state over a little-known and underfunded state senator, as polls suggest is likely, doesn’t automatically translate into success at the national level.
Democrats and Republicans agree that Christie always was positioned to win big in his first re-election test. Challenger Barbara Buono has struggled to attract support from even her party’s most devoted allies.
Signaling how little confidence she has inspired in the party, the Democratic Governors Association, which is designed to help Democrats win governor’s races, spent less than $5,000 on the New Jersey contest while pouring more than $6 million into the Virginia election, also Tuesday.
Other would-be Christie critics shied away from New Jersey, giving the incumbent little resistance as he sells himself as an electable GOP leader with particular appeal among women and minorities, groups that Republicans elsewhere often struggle to attract. Christie’s advisers suggest that would be his pitch during any future national campaign.
Beyond New Jersey, Democrats express regret that they didn’t do more to highlight Christie’s political warts, challenge his economic record in a state with high unemployment, and use the moment to exploit his vulnerabilities ahead of a possible national run.
Outside groups were reluctant to spend money on a race perceived as unwinnable for Democrats, particularly when there was a more competitive contest in Virginia.
Christie tried to insulate himself from any real challenge from outside groups by spending big on advertising.
His campaign spent $11.5 million on television and radio ads through Election Day, compared with Buono’s $2.1 million, according to SMG Delta, a Virginia-based firm that tracks political spending. The only other major player on television was Garden State Forward, a PAC formed by the state’s largest teachers union, which spent almost $1.8 million against Christie.
Left-leaning groups that did engage struggled to make their criticisms stick.
Democrats complain that Christie skirted scrutiny for saddling taxpayers with a $24 million tab by scheduling two elections three weeks apart to avoid sharing the ballot with Democrat Cory Booker, who just joined the U.S. Senate.
They call attention to Christie’s decision to use taxpayer dollars on a post-Superstorm Sandy advertising campaign that featured him in a starring role, and cite the questions that Mitt Romney’s vice presidential checking team raised about the governor’s medical history and early political career.
Even with polls predicting a big victory, the Christie camp is trying to lower expectations in a state that Obama won by more than 17 points. Should Christie break the 50 percent mark, he would become the first Republican governor to do so in New Jersey since 1985.
A number of Democrats attended the Harrison rally on Friday night.
She’s never supported a Republican before, but is willing to forgive Christie’s positions on gay marriage and abortion _ Christie opposes both. But she won’t be so forgiving if he goes after the White House.