Recent actions by state Democratic leaders generated speculation that they appeared ready to concede Gov. Chris Christie's re-election in favor of devoting their resources to averting significant losses at the legislative, county and municipal levels in November.

Middlesex County State Sen. Barbara Buono, the only declared Democratic candidate, secured her party's nomination after other potential candidates spent the past few months presumably immersed in introspection before withdrawing from consideration

Party leaders quickly coalesced behind Buono, pledging their support and striving to put to rest recent efforts by many of them to entice someone else into the race.

Among those mentioned as alternatives to Buono, Essex County State Sen. and former acting governor Dick Codey chose to remain in the Senate; Newark Mayor Cory Booker - considered the strongest challenger - took a pass in favor of seeking a U.S. Senate seat in 2014; Senate President Steve Sweeney of Gloucester County decided to direct his energies toward assuring Democratic control of the Legislature, and U.S. Rep. William Pascrell of Passaic County declined.

None of these decisions was surprising. The suspense was manufactured.

Unseating Christie is a Herculean task for any Democrat. His job performance rating exceeds 70 per cent - a truly astonishing number - and his national prominence along with his months of campaigning for candidates around the country will attract campaign contributions enabling him to forgo public financing and virtually spend without limit.

While his approval ratings will certainly decline over the coming months as voters re-focus attention on closer-to-home issues - property taxes, unemployment, economic growth and job creation, for example - Christie is a skilled campaigner, the kind of political force of nature seldom seen before in New Jersey.

Buono cannot hope to match Christie dollar for dollar in campaign spending, and her name recognition remains low. A recent poll showed she trailed Christie by some 30 points. Both Codey and Sweeney lagged Christie by similar margins. Only Booker was within competitive range.

Party leaders squandered most of January in search of a candidate they felt would be stronger than Buono, someone who - while losing - could mitigate potential down-ballot damage.

Buono maintained her equanimity throughout, until public expressions of frustration with what they saw as an embarrassing process came from South Jersey political leader George Norcross of Camden County and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo.

As motivated as these two key players might have been in seeking an end to the vacillation, there was considerable speculation that they recognized an opportunity to take serious potshots at Codey, with whom they'd been at odds for some time.

Codey, not surprisingly, returned fire and was particularly harsh in responding to DiVincenzo, whom he accused of being in the tank for Christie and sharing the tank with Norcross.

Codey's decision not to run was certainly influenced in considerable measure by the bitterness that exists between him and the Norcross/DiVincenzo alliance. Competing in a party primary and, if successful, in a general election verges on the impossible without the money, organization and get-out-the-vote efforts controlled by the two men.

Codey is not alone in his belief that Norcross' and DiVincenzo's relationship with Christie is of considerable importance to them. Some have questioned whether the two will declare an "all hands on deck" call on Buono's behalf or simply exert enough of an effort to avert electoral disaster for state and local candidates.

Buono is an intelligent, insightful and articulate candidate who fully understands the odds she faces, leading some to speculate that she will strive to make a respectable showing in 2013 and position herself at the top of potential candidates in 2017 when the governor's office is an open seat.

She's made it clear she'll campaign on the party's left-of-center issues and has already criticized Christie for what she says is his lack of leadership on restricting access to guns, for sharp cutbacks in women's health care programs, for policies favoring the wealthy and hurting middle- and low-income families, and for vetoing same-sex marriage legislation.

While the nomination is pretty much hers, Buono may find that convincing broad segments of her own party of her viability and competitiveness is equally as daunting as taking on Christie.

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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