LAKEWOOD, N.J. (AP) — Newark Mayor Cory Booker reiterated Tuesday that his personal relationship with Republican Gov. Chris Christie doesn't alter his conviction that state Sen. Barbara Buono is the right person to lead New Jersey.
"I will crisscross the state and stump for Barbara Buono. I will raise money. I will write a check," Booker said after he and Buono toured part of Newark's Ironbound district.
Christie, meanwhile, touted his record of creating private-sector jobs at a Tuesday forum for senior citizens in Lakewood.
A recent poll showed Christie with a 36 percentage point lead over Buono, his likely opponent next fall. Booker predicted the gubernatorial race would tighten up.
"By the month of October this is going to be a horse race between these two candidates," he said. "This election can't be about personality; it has to be about issues."
Christie has joked before that so few people in Newark voted for him, he was planning on taking them all out to dinner, one by one. But Buono didn't appear to be taking New Jersey's largest city for granted.
"Newark is very important; that's why I'm here," she said at a diner on Ferry Street, the Ironbound's main thoroughfare. "People feel disenfranchised in the cities. They feel this governor has ignored them, and they feel they need someone who will represent them."
In a forum for senior citizens in Lakewood, Christie pointed to a report released Monday that showed New Jersey has added more than 117,000 private-sector jobs since February 2010, the low point of the Great Recession in New Jersey and a month after Christie took office.
"You're not paying those for jobs, they're actually paying us in taxes," Christie said.
But the news in the federal labor data is not all positive, and Buono pointed out that New Jersey's unemployment rate is tied for the fourth-highest in the country.
The unemployment rate for January remained flat at 9.5 percent, above the national rate of 7.9 percent. At the current rate of growth, the state still is years away from returning to its pre-recession level of jobs.
When residents at the forum asked the governor about the fate of new college graduates and laid-off public sector workers, he said both groups have benefited from private-sector job growth.
So far, the gubernatorial campaign has seemed largely a race for endorsements. Christie on Tuesday picked up the nods of Igud and Vaad, two influential groups in Lakewood's large Orthodox Jewish community.
Booker has made no secret of the fact that he likes Christie and that the two have a good working relationship. But he said Buono's positions on issues such as marriage equality, the environment, women's health and education offer a clear alternative.
In Lakewood, local leaders praised Christie for his stance against gay marriage and especially his support of a plan to use public money to send children in low-performing districts to private schools.
That's a key issue in Lakewood, where thousands of children attend more than 30 private religious schools.
"He's a man that stands up for private education," Rabbi Shlomo Kanarek said at a Christie campaign event Tuesday at one of the schools.
In 2009, the Orthodox community was divided during the governor's race. While then-Gov. Jon Corzine — a Democrat — got key endorsements, Christie won in the vote.
Lakewood Mayor Albert Akerman said he expects the town to deliver 20,000 votes for Christie this year, contributing to a 100,000 plurality in Ocean County, a heavy Republican area.
In his last election, Christie won the county by 71,000 votes.