WAYNE, N.J. (AP) — With the gubernatorial election less than a month away, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is telling voters that he might not serve out his full second term if elected.
The admission might hurt any other candidate.
But for Christie, it underscores his popularity as a straight-talking Republican in a Democratic state. And it highlights what's at stake in New Jersey's looming gubernatorial election — a contest as much about Christie's presidential aspirations as the governor's race.
He did not laugh off a question about his political future when asked during his first re-election debate Tuesday.
"I am not going to declare tonight ... that I am or I'm not running for president," Christie said. "I won't make those decisions until I have to."
Facing a skeptical moderator, he later quipped: "I can walk and chew gum at the same time. I can do this job and also deal with my future. And that's what I will do."
That's exactly what Christie is doing as he uses his gubernatorial election to make the case for a higher office.
Buoyed by polls suggesting he has a commanding lead in his re-election bid, Christie's team is assembling a broad coalition of supporters — groups of Democrats, union workers, women and minorities that Republican candidates elsewhere struggle to attract. He says his re-election campaign offers a road map of sorts for beleaguered Republicans across the nation as the party works to expand.
"We've got to win elections again. And that's what we're going to show the whole country in New Jersey on Nov. 5," Christie said of his party while greeting volunteers inside his Middlesex County headquarters before the debate.
"I thought that the Republican Party was put into effect to win elections. I didn't think we were some debating society or some group of academic elites that sit around and talk about big ideas but don't do anything about them," he continued. "If you don't win you can't govern. And if you can't govern, you can't change your state or the country. So we have got to get back to the idea of building a broad coalition."
Christie's philosophy aligns him with Republican pragmatists pushing the GOP to embrace political moderation, particularly on divisive social issues and immigration. Despite detailed recommendations by the Republican National Committee to do just that, the pragmatists are losing the debate as the GOP's more conservative wing drives the national discussion in Washington.
Christie insists that another kind of Republican can be successful.
Asked Tuesday why voters should give him another term, Christie said he's been honest about the state's problems and worked with Democrats to find bipartisan solutions.
"That's why I'm endorsed by 49 Democratic elected officials. That's why we've been able to get things done in Trenton compared to what's going on in Washington, D.C.," he said.
New Jersey voters of both parties report being pleased with Christie's handling of Superstorm Sandy last year, when he appeared to put politics on hold as he welcomed President Barack Obama to tour his battered state shortly before the last presidential contest — a move that irked many conservatives across the country. And leaders of the state's minority community applaud his outreach to groups long ignored by Republicans.
"He was willing to come to a predominantly African-American community," said Michael Blunt, the Democratic mayor of Chesilhurst, N.J., and a strong Christie supporter. "He's man to man. He talks to you as if you're his equal."
Christie also worked to appeal to women during the debate, mentioning his mother at times and complimenting his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono for being "a good and caring mother and someone who cares deeply about public service in the state."
The event also offered Christie an opportunity to practice his debate skills against a female candidate — a possible preview for a 2016 presidential race expected to feature Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton. Christie faced off against a female competitor in debate preparation sessions to help ensure he wasn't too aggressive.
Voters, even some likely supporters, said Christie's brash style is refreshing at times, but also carries risks.
"I like the fact that he's firm in what he believes in, but that can turn some people off," said Mary Ann Vadas, a retiree who was finishing her breakfast at an Edison, N.J., diner when Christie made a surprise visit Tuesday.
Vadas, a Democrat, said she'll probably vote for Christie next month anyway.
Buono repeatedly tried to paint Christie as a bully who governs with an iron fist. But polls suggest that most voters like what they see. And Christie is refusing to apologize for his tough talk.
"Using direct and blunt language is something I've done my whole life. It's the way my mother raised me," he said. "I am who I am. And I'm not going to change."