There was more suspense in waiting for LeBron James to announce that he intended to flee Cleveland and take his jump shot to Miami than was found in the decision of Newark Mayor Cory Booker to forgo a run for governor next year and seek a U. S. Senate seat the following year.

While reluctant to acknowledge it publicly, the older, wiser and more cynical heads in the political cognoscenti knew Booker would not risk a challenge to Gov. Chris Christie, fearing a loss - large or small - would damage his brand and stunt his future.

Booker, of course, played the media like a fine violin and contributed to the hype at every opportunity. That's what politicians who've become the center of media attention do. The "will he or won't he" speculation is a way of life for folks like Booker and, aside from irritating party contemporaries, it's essentially harmless.

The risk was simply too great for Booker. Even though he would have been the most formidable candidate in a party primary, he would still have had to raise significant cash not only to win but to demonstrate he had the ability to do so. Then, within a few months, significantly more cash would have been necessary to mount an effective campaign against Christie.

And, if Booker really lusted after a Senate seat, a loss to Christie would have meant that less than a year later, he would have had to raise even more millions to compete for the Senate. It was not an appealing scenario.

Nor was the political dynamic of a gubernatorial run in his favor. Party powers like South Jersey leader George Norcross, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, and Newark sachem Steve Adubato Sr. all are close to Christie and were not pleased at the prospect of damaging their power-sharing accommodation by going all out for a Booker candidacy.

Indeed, within minutes of the mayor's statement, DiVincenzo announced his support for a Booker challenge to Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Presumably, Adubato and Norcross share his enthusiasm, particularly Norcross who, earlier this year, tore into Lautenberg after the senator expressed his opposition to a proposed merger of Rutgers and Rowan universities, a Norcross pet project.

Lautenberg has hinted that he intends to seek re-election in 2014 despite reaching 90 by then, but a well-financed and well-organized Booker challenge could prove more than he could handle. There's speculation that the party hierarchy is considering presenting a stark choice to the senator: Retire gracefully and go out a winner or face the indignity of being kicked to the curb by his own party.

For Booker, his future path was clear. He knew he would be the odds-on favorite in a run for the Senate, but for governor, not so much.

While there remains the possibility of primary opposition for the Senate nomination, it's certain the party would coalesce around Booker. U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone of Monmouth County, who has waited patiently for Lautenberg to retire and clear the way for him, is destined to be a bridesmaid yet again.

Republicans haven't won a Senate election since 1972, and their chances of doing so in 2014 are nonexistent. Their bench is sparse, and no Republican in the state's congressional delegation, for example, has expressed any interest in taking on the task of reversing 40 years of futility.

Booker's decision leaves the Democratic Party in something of a muddle as it goes about settling on a candidate to oppose Christie. Even though the governor's job-approval rating soared into the uncharted territory in excess of 70 percent, it will decline as issues of governance - like the state's onerous property tax burden - become prominent next year.

He is, though, in as commanding a position going into his re-election year as Tom Kean was in 1985 when his landslide established a record 750,000 vote plurality and 70 percent of the ballots cast.

Middlesex County state Sen. Barbara Buono is the only announced Democratic candidate, but the prospect of her upending Christie is bleak.

With Booker's departure, speculation has turned to Senate President Steve Sweeney of Gloucester County and Essex County Sen. Richard Codey, although Codey is highly unpopular with the Norcross-DiVincenzo-Adubato troika.

The second tier of potentials includes Camden County Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, the aforementioned Pallone, and Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage.

Christie is still the overwhelming favorite.

As for Booker, if he truly wants to be governor, he can win a Senate seat, wait until the 2017 gubernatorial election, keep his post in Washington, and run for the open seat in Trenton.

That is, after all, what the last Democratic governor did.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

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