Buono is losing (so far)

In case you missed it, here's my analysis in Sunday's paper of the gubernatorial race so far:

TRENTON - Barbara Buono is losing.

Yes, it's still more than six months until an election in which she tries to unseat a popular governor. And yes, beating Chris Christie - named last week to Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world, for God's sake - was never going to be easy.

But at this early stage, the little-known Democratic state senator from Middlesex County is outmatched in the crucial areas of polls, party unity, and cash.

Buono is participating in the state's donation matching program, which gets her $2 in public funds for every $1 she raises. Yet she will likely become the first nominee since the matching program began 32 years ago to fail to collect the maximum allotment, according to state records.

Television still rules American political communication, and buying advertising in two of the most expensive markets in the country, New York and Philadelphia, requires a lot of money. To receive the $3.5 million max, Buono would have to raise nearly twice what she has in the last four months - and she'd have to do it in just six weeks before her June primary.

As of last week, Buono had collected just $787,923 in matching funds. At this point in 2009, when Christie was, like Buono, running as a challenger, he had raised enough money to get $2.4 million in matching funds. And he was competing for cash against a legitimate primary opponent, which Buono doesn't have.

Even Christie's Republican opponent in 2009, Steve Lonegan, had raised more money than Buono has at this point.

Buono's $1.4 million in private and public funds is not only far below the $5 million-plus that the Christie camp has in the bank, but it is less than the $1.9 million Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker has raised for a U.S. Senate election that doesn't happen until 2014.

Booker is also raising money for Buono, by the way. He has so far been her most prominent Democratic supporter, and therein lies Buono's other problem: party unity. While the GOP is in lockstep with its dear leader - an elected Republican would not dare defy Christie - Democrats have a more, well, democratic approach.

The biggest political force in North Jersey, Essex County Executive Joseph "Joe D." DiVincenzo, hasn't endorsed Buono but publicly yukked it up with his friend Christie at the opening of an exhibit at a North Jersey zoo this month.

Buono has also been embroiled in an inside-baseball battle over the next chairman of the Democratic Party, with anonymous Democrats opposing her rumored pick.

And that's not all anonymous Dems are doing.

"There's a lot of Democrats who are supporting Gov. Christie - whether they do it under the covers or out front," said Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage, a Democrat who runs the state's fourth-biggest city. In an interview, Bollwage said he disagrees with Christie's policies and will vote for Buono - but "at some point, [her] campaign has to come forward with what their plan is."

While she's effective at getting "a quote at the end of a Christie story," Bollwage said, Buono has to start "getting the lead on the news stories and getting the governor to respond to her."

Of particular concern to him, Bollwage said, is that she has yet to offer a detailed plan for cities like his. Besides, cities are good politics. "It's the easiest votes to get - it's the areas that have been hardest hit by Christie policies," he said.

The Buono campaign says it is ramping up its efforts. It has field organizers on the ground, social-media ads online, and a rapid-response reaction to almost every Christie utterance.

"We're in a situation where we don't have a contested primary, and that gives us an opportunity to focus our time and attention on introducing Sen. Buono to voters across the state," said Jonathan Ducote, her campaign manager, in an interview.

He said he was confident that the campaign would have the resources "to make sure voters know who she is, and know her vision for the state."

"Christie is going to need every single penny he's got to defend his record, because it's atrocious," Ducote contended.

That view is not reflected in the polls, though, some of which have shown Christie leading even among Democrats. His overall numbers have recently come back down to earth, but he still has a 30-point lead, according to the latest Rutgers-Eagleton survey.

That poll even showed most Buono supporters expect she'll lose.

Those numbers merely indicate Buono's name ID is low for now, Ducote said. And both Democrats and Republicans believe that the polls in this blue state will tighten.

There's another variable, too: Buono is picking up endorsements from public worker unions, and those deep-pocketed unions could pour money into "outside groups" - newly legal entities with secret donor lists that can run negative ads against Christie. That also may explain why she has raised less direct money so far - money may be earmarked for those groups instead.

And Buono can take this fact to heart: A challenger once defeated an incumbent in New Jersey despite a fund-raising disadvantage of $18 million to $32 million.

The year was 2009, and that challenger's name was Chris Christie.