When a candidate's campaign team convenes to plot strategy, fundamental to their decisions is the bit of advice most favored by consultants: "Whatever moves the numbers."

The numbers, of course, are the polling data that the team pores over to identify top issues, develop effective messages and reach advertising decisions, the last being particularly crucial because of the millions of dollars involved.

Presumably, the campaign team for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono has had several such sit-downs, but so far at least it has had little success in moving the numbers.

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The campaign's internal polls undoubtedly reflect the public surveys, identifying the economy and issues related to the economy - job creation and taxes - as the most important matter on the minds of voters.

Other issues - even those as normally important as education and the environment - are in single digits while social issues - same-sex marriage, abortion rights and gun control - barely register at all.

The path for Buono seems apparent: Mount a concentrated, single-minded attack on Gov. Chris Christie for failing to restore the state's economic health, grow employment and control property taxes.

After nearly four years of flirting with 10 percent, the unemployment rate has declined but remains higher than the national average and that of surrounding states. Job growth has occurred, but the number of employed remains below pre-recession levels.

Still, Buono has failed to gain ground, consistently trailing Christie by 30 points, even as polls identified economic issues as the governor's only potential area of vulnerability. His overall job performance, for instance, remains above 60 percent, but his handling of property taxes is in the low 40 percent range.

The governor's force-of-nature persona, his adroit use of social media and the lingering admiration for his leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy have been overwhelming positives, obscuring the discontent voters feel over his fiscal stewardship.

Buono, though, seems reluctant to turn her full attention to the property-tax issue. She's been relegated to playing defense, settling for responding to the governor's comments and initiatives and winding up buried in new stories written by reporters who include a line or two from her because, in the interest of balance, they are obliged to do so.

On those occasions when news stories feature her, more often than not they concentrate on her feud with party leaders or the endorsements of Christie from state and local Democrats.

While the social issues, including Christie's veto of funding for women's health-care programs, are compelling for the constituencies affected by them, there is little political traction to be gained by focusing on them.

While Christie enjoys a comfortable lead among non-aligned voters, Buono has little choice but to direct her message to them if she is to close the gap. Independents have demonstrated they are of like mind with party-affiliated voters on the issue of the property-tax burden.

Buono's reluctance to concentrate on the issue suggests she is perhaps wary of the implied criticism of her party's support for Christie's initiatives - the 2 percent cap on property-tax increases and requiring public employees to contribute more to their pension and health benefits, in particular.

While she may not wish to engage in a public debate over the intra-party divisions, the harsh reality is that the same reluctance did not extend to those party leaders who've abandoned her candidacy as well as those who've decided to sit out the election.

Separating herself from them - particularly on an issue as critical as property-tax relief - could work in her favor by portraying her as more independent-minded and unafraid of charting her own course free of political bosses. At this point, applying the "whatever moves the numbers" theory is crucial for Buono. The "whatever" is clear. The rationale for her reluctance to employ it is not.

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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