SOUTH BRUNSWICK, N.J. (AP) — Little-known New Jersey politician Barbara Buono enters the final week of her campaign to unseat Gov. Chris Christie with even fellow Democrats setting a low bar for success: They say she will have run a credible race if she doesn't get thrashed, as public polls suggest she might.
Against a nationally recognized governor who's a possible presidential candidate in 2016, Democrats say, Buono took on a fight that may not have been winnable.
"I am the little guy. I'm fine with that," Buono, 60, told students at a recent campaign stop at Rider University in Lawrence. "People may say this election is over, but let me tell you this, as a woman in New Jersey politics, I've always been underestimated. I'm not going to have any boss tell me it's not my time or it's not my turn."
The low expectations for Buono are the result of a variety of factors, including her lack of name recognition. She also has little support from party leaders, has raised about a quarter of the money Christie has and is running against a popular incumbent who led New Jersey's recovery from one of its darkest recent chapters, the devastation of its famous shoreline caused by Superstorm Sandy.
A state senator for 20 years, Buono didn't seek re-election in order to challenge Christie. But she was spurned early on by Democrats who control the party. One has stood side by side with the governor, and another endorsed him.
Buono has struggled to get out a message that voters can relate to, even with the state's economic recovery lagging behind the nation's and taxes remaining among the nation's highest. Two weeks before the Nov. 5 election, a Rutgers-Eagleton poll found four in 10 registered voters didn't know enough about Buono to have an opinion of her.
"It's a difficult cycle to get her message out," said Democratic Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, who represents the same district as Buono and has known her 15 years. "The governor has such gravitas. The result would be the same no matter who the candidate is."
Polls have consistently shown Christie with a 20-plus point advantage. And with the anniversary of the superstorm this week has come many reminders of his hands-on leadership during the storm, a misfortune of timing for Buono.
The flood of attention over Christie's potential White House bid has also put Buono at a disadvantage. Christie has courted Democrats and unaffiliated voters as he looks to score a blowout win to show how well a Republican can do in a Democratic-leaning state. On Monday, he appeared in the Democratic stronghold of Essex County to unveil a statue of a longtime community leader and work to strengthen his bond with the party.
Buono began the day in South Brunswick to pick up an endorsement from the Superior Officers Association union, which endorsed Christie four years ago. President Jeff Smith said the 400-member group remains deeply disappointed with a law raising their pension contributions, which Christie signed despite a 2009 campaign pledge to leave police and firefighters' pensions alone.
"People ask me why am I running all the time," Buono said at Rider. "And I always say to them, 'How could I not run? Look at the shape the state is in.'"
Still, as the two candidates tell it, Buono and Christie have surprisingly similar beginnings.
Both are Baby Boomers born in Newark to Italian immigrants who preached hard work, good education and the value of family. Both earned law degrees in New Jersey and earned experience as prosecutors. They each have four children and high-earning spouses and live in comfortable central New Jersey suburbs.
Both are in the state's public financing program, which provides $2 for every $1 raised. Christie raised the $4.2 million maximum early last month and received the last of his $8 million match three weeks ago. Buono has raised $1.2 million and received $2.7 million so far.
Buono's situation is common among underdogs running statewide, said State Democratic Sen. Dick Codey, a former acting governor: She doesn't have the money to advertise, so she struggles to attract donors because voters don't know her and organizations are unconvinced she can win.
She brushed off those challenges Monday.
"There is a real energy that's being infused into the campaign," Buono said. "We're on a mission; we're going forward."