TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is participating in the first debate of his re-election campaign Tuesday night, an event that could be a tuneup for the 2016 presidential campaign.
Christie hasn't declared his intention to run for president but Republican strategists say he likely would be a strong contender for the Republican Party nomination if he runs. In his three years as governor, Christie's national profile has grown substantially — he was the straight-talking face of the state's response to Superstorm Sandy and has sought high-profile roles including keynote speaker at last year's Republican National Convention.
His debate opponent, Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono, has been given little chance at unseating the popular governor. The only unsettled question appears to be Christie's margin of victory in this Democratic-leaning state.
Christie, 51, who tends to be better off-the-cuff than in scripted remarks, is likely to stick to the talking points of the campaign. He'll tout his ability to reach consensus with New Jersey's Democrat-led Legislature, and will contrast his signature bipartisan achievements of ending lifetime teacher tenure and winning benefits concessions from public-sector unions with the gridlock in Washington that has led to a government shutdown. He'll portray his opponent as a tax-and-spend liberal, much like former Gov. Jon Corzine, who Christie unseated four years ago.
The message won't be new, but viewers might be surprised to see a thinner version of the governor. Christie said last month he's more than halfway to the dieting goal he set after undergoing weight-loss surgery in February.
Buono, 60, who has struggled to stay on-message and has been outraised by more than 4-to-1, is expected to portray Christie as a nationally ambitious politician whose every calculation is based on his national aspirations.
Campaigning in East Brunswick earlier Tuesday, Christie said he expected the debate to be "fun."
"It's going to be fun. I don't have to worry about anything," he told volunteers at his Middlesex County headquarters. "Tonight, what you're going to see is, this is me. And the people of New Jersey who are watching tonight will not be the least bit surprised by whatever they see."
Christie can afford to be relaxed. Polls have shown him with a consistently strong lead in his bid for a second term.
Buono had no public schedule prior to the debate. The 20-year state legislator is giving up her state Senate seat to run against Christie.
The candidates are likely to face questions about property taxes, gay marriage and raising the minimum wage — issues that have implications for Christie's broader political future.
The debate takes place at William Paterson University in Wayne. A one-hour live broadcast by the CBS television stations in New York and Philadelphia begins at 7 p.m.
The two meet again next Tuesday for the second and final debate required under state election law for candidates who are accepting public financing.
Peoples reported from East Brunswick, N.J.