TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — A lopsided race for governor in New Jersey neared a decision Tuesday as voters chose between Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who could leave before a second term ends to run for president, and Barbara Buono, a little-known state senator who was the only Democrat willing to challenge the popular incumbent.
Christie has been barnstorming the state by bus since Wednesday to drive up turnout. Polls leading up to Election Day showed him with a 20-plus point advantage as he pushed for a landslide to burnish his bipartisan credentials and show how a reach-across-the-aisle Republican could do in a Democratic-leaning state. Christie was looking to become the first Republican running statewide to break 50 percent since George H.W. Bush in 1988.
By law, Christie cannot seek a third term, and he assured people after he voted Tuesday in Mendham that it was the last time he'd be running for elected office in New Jersey.
"I don't know if I'll ever have another chance to vote for myself," he said. "I won't ever run for another office in New Jersey, I can guarantee that. This is it for me."
Buono, who focused on the economy in her run, campaigned without the aid of big-name Democrats. She also was spurned early on by Democratic leaders who control party politics in the state. They have a good working relationship with Christie and didn't believe the progressive from Metuchen, on the fringes of the New York City metropolitan area, could win.
Buono and her husband voted Tuesday morning at a school gymnasium in her hometown. She said she believed many Democrats would turn out for her, unlike four years ago when Christie defeated Gov. Jon Corzine.
"They were unhappy with an incumbent governor, but couldn't bring themselves to vote for Christie," she said. "That's not going to happen."
Preliminary results of an exit poll — conducted for The Associated Press and television networks ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News — by Edison Research found the economy was the issue that mattered most to nearly half the voters.
Most called New Jersey's economy not so good or poor, though voters were divided on whether it had improved since Christie took office four years ago. Still, nearly two-thirds said they approve of Christie's handling of the economy.
The exit poll of 1,549 New Jersey voters in 40 precincts statewide has a sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Christie, 51, was already popular when Superstorm Sandy slammed into the coast a year ago, damaging 360,000 homes and businesses, plunging 5.5 million people into darkness and disrupting gasoline supplies for days. His popularity skyrocketed as he donned a blue fleece pullover and led the state through its worst natural disaster, whether he was embracing President Barack Obama during a visit to the battered coast or consoling a tearful 9-year-old who had lost her house.
Christie underwent weight-loss surgery in February and has been shedding pounds steadily since, addressing a health issue that could affect his political plans in the future. He has refused to rule out a presidential run, which may mean he could resign before his second term ended.
Buono, 60, has portrayed Christie's ambitions as a negative. In an interview on MSNBC on Monday, she said the governor is putting his personal ambitions ahead of the needs of the state.
Buono has also challenged Christie on gay marriage, which she supported and he opposed before it became legal in New Jersey last month. She criticized Christie's budget priorities — refusing to reinstate a surcharge on millionaires while trimming a property tax credit for the working poor, for example — and his veto of legislation raising the minimum-wage.
Though a majority of New Jersey residents agree with Buono on social issues, she has been unable to get out from a campaign Catch-22: She couldn't get her message out because she hadn't raised a lot of money for advertising, and she had trouble raising money because voters didn't know her.
Democrats, including Buono, rejected Christie's minimum-wage compromise of scaling back an increase and phasing it in over three years, and instead decided to put the question to voters.
So voters are being asked in ballot question No. 2 to increase the minimum wage by $1, to $8.25 per hour, and to allow annual cost-of-living increases based on inflation. They'll also be asked to allow veterans' groups to use proceeds from games of chance to run their organizations.
Voters will also choose their legislative representatives. Democrats now control both the Senate and Assembly with all 120 seats up for election.
Associated Press writers David Porter contributed in Mendham and Metuchen; and Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed.