Garden State Democrats face a daunting prospect in knocking off popular Gov. Chris Christie next year: His approval ratings are high, he fits the state, and his handling of Hurricane Sandy only improved his standing. Complicating matters for Democrats is the fact that their best potential nominee, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, isn't guaranteed to get in the race.
And if Booker takes a pass, the remaining available options start looking pretty weak.
In an interview Sunday aired on C-SPAN's Newsmakers, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, the new chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, acknowledged the challenge he faces in New Jersey.
"No question Gov. Christie is popular right now. As you know, a week in politics is a long time. There are a lot of candidates, very strong candidates considering that run in New Jersey, and we're going to work with all of them to come out with the strongest candidate to beat Chris Christie," Shumlin said. "I haven't personally talked to Cory, although I will be talking to him soon. But I have spoken with other candidates who are running in New Jersey, or who will be running, and I think it's going to be a very spirited race."
Who might those other candidates be? Here are the four possible Democrats not named Booker:
-- State Senate President Stephen Sweeney: Sweeney is a Trenton insider who first won his seat in the Philadelphia suburbs in 2001. He ousted former Senate President Dick Codey in leadership elections in 2009. Sweeney has thought long and hard about running; he told Huffington Post just last week that he's keeping his options open, regardless of what Booker does. Sweeney declined an invitation to attend the DGA's annual conference last week.
-- State Sen. Dick Codey: New Jersey politics are nothing if not personal, and Codey, the former interim governor, took Sweeney's 2009 challenge personally. The story of their feud involves a host of local officials with decades of history and deeply entrenched feuds; sources told PolitickerNJ last week that Codey might run if his biggest rival, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, sides with Sweeney.
-- State Sen. Barbara Buono: Sweeney didn't go to Los Angeles for the DGA's annual meeting, but Buono did. She was invited by EMILY's List, the powerful pro-choice Democratic group, and she's already hired David Axelrod's old firm, AKPD, to handle messaging. And she's even posted a help-wanted ad for a campaign manager. Buono is the outsider candidate, someone who wouldn't necessarily attract support from party bosses. Unfortunately for her, party bosses still matter in New Jersey.
-- Rep. Bill Pascrell: Passiac County Democratic Party chairman John Currie told the Bergen Record last week he thinks Pascrell could be the compromise candidate if no one from Trenton cuts it. Pascrell, who beat Rep. Steve Rothman in a member-vs.-member primary earlier this year, isn't knocking down that idea. "Congressman Pascrell has always been willing to listen to party leaders about what is in the best interests of our party and our state," his chief of staff told the paper last week.
Whoever the Democratic nominee might be, post-Sandy polling shows Christie starts with the upper hand. On Sunday, the DGA's Shumlin admitted as much. "No question we're running against a popular incumbent. We're realistic about that. But that can change," he said.