TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — You might not have heard of New Jersey state Sen. Barbara Buono, though you've probably heard of the man she's itching to take on in the November election — Gov. Chris Christie.
Expect to hear more about her. Buono picked up endorsements Tuesday from the Democratic Governors' Association, southern New Jersey's seven county Democratic Party chairs and the southern legislative delegation, thereby sewing up enough support statewide to become the Democrats' presumptive nominee for governor.
She will be a serious underdog against Christie, who has the benefits of incumbency, greater name recognition and the ability to raise however much he needs to run a re-election campaign.
Christie, 50, saw his popularity soar after Superstorm Sandy, but Buono says New Jersey's problems of high unemployment and high taxes existed before the late-October storm.
Buono, a 59-year-old senator from Metuchen on the fringe of the New York City area, was the first major Democrat to enter the race, but establishment Democrats were slow to back her bid to challenge Christie. Their first choice, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, opted to run for U.S. Senate in 2014 instead of facing Christie.
"I was always confident the party would come together," Buono said. "This election is too important — it's about having someone who stands up for working New Jerseyans and the working poor who have been forgotten by this governor. We're mounting an aggressive campaign to take the Statehouse back for the middle class."
Buono has raised more than $200,000 but needs $380,000 to qualify for public matching funds. Christie has already pulled in $2 million, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is hosting a fundraiser for him in California next month.
The chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, outlined the themes of Buono's campaign.
"Barbara Buono understands the challenges facing New Jersey's middle class because she's lived through them. She's spent her entire career fighting to create jobs, improve education, expand access to quality health care and balance budgets," Shumlin said.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald signed a letter pledging "to tirelessly fight to elect Barbara Buono as our next governor" because of her track record as a champion of the state's most vulnerable residents. Sweeney until recently talked about possibly joining the race.
State Sen. Dick Codey, of Essex County in the state's north, also threw his support behind Buono. Until Friday, Codey was flirting with his own run for governor. He was acting governor for 14 months after Jim McGreevey resigned in 2004, but he decided against running for an elected term.
Buono had received key endorsements on Monday from Reps. Frank Pallone and Bill Pascrell Jr., who was also courted as a candidate, and party chairs in the New York-area counties of Bergen, Passaic and Hudson.
Taking the governor's seat away from Christie, who has among the highest profiles of any Republican in the country, would be a huge prize for both the state and national Democratic parties. But Republicans were underwhelmed by the prospect of Buono.
"After failing to recruit their first, second, third or fourth choice candidates into the campaign for governor, Democrats have finally settled on state Sen. Barbara Buono," said Mike Schrimpf, spokesman for the Republican Governors Association.
Mike Duhaime, Christie's political adviser, said the governor's "record of leadership cannot be matched."
Buono's campaign officially kicks off in New Brunswick on Saturday. Christie's starts with a fundraiser in New Brunswick on Monday.