What do you do when you're the frontrunner for your party's nomination but you're trailing in the general election by 41 points?
If you're Democratic New Jersey state Sen. Barbara Buono running against GOP Gov. Chris Christie, you acknowledge your current standing but hope for the best.
"If the election was held today, we know what the result would be," said Buono during a phone interview last week. "I fully expect my name recognition to grow."
As of this week, Buono has all but wrapped up the Democratic nomination for governor. Former Gov. Richard Codey opted last week to seek another term in the state Senate rather than challenge her for the nomination, and state Senate President Steve Sweeney said Monday that he would run for reelection, too. Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone and Bill Pascrell, who had considered runs of their own, both endorsed Buono on Monday.
On Tuesday, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, released a statement backing Buono's candidacy.
"New Jersey needs a governor focused on creating jobs and expanding opportunity for New Jersey's working families and that's exactly the kind of governor Barbara Buono will be," wrote Shumlin.
But despite the party rallying around her, Democrats are still worried about losing control of the state Senate to the Republicans if a landslide Christie win produces a down-ticket bounce for the GOP. Codey and Sweeney declining to run in a primary gives them two seats they don't have to worry about, but that will not alleviate fears that Buono will be blown out of the water by Christie, who sports national name recognition and a country-wide network of donors.
Meanwhile, Buono's greatest asset may be her biggest problem. Buono claims to offer a major contrast to Christie when it comes to policy: The two disagree on a plethora of issues, including collective bargaining, taxes, pension reform, gun control and same-sex marriage.
"I think I've been the clearest contrast with this governor, and I think it's a message that will resonate with New Jersey," said Buono.
Christie sports one of the highest approval ratings in the country for any governor, which begs the question of whether voters are willing to fire their state's chief executive this November. Christie also outraised Buono in December alone by a 10-to-1 clip in a state dominated by two of the most expensive media markets in the country: New York City and Philadelphia.
Buono is positioning herself to counter Christie on air by hiring the media firm AKPD Message and Media, founded by President Obama's long-time political adviser David Axelrod. She also is courting the Democratic group EMILY's List for fundraising help, too.
That is just one indication that social issues could play a large part in the campaign. When Buono mentioned that she is "reaching out to interest groups across New Jersey," the first group she identified wasn't a labor union, but instead the "LGBT community."
A progressive Democrat, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is one of her core, base groups. After she launched her campaign in December, one of her first press releases announced an LBGT outreach committee.
That could help her with out-of-state funding against Christie, who vetoed a same-sex marriage bill passed by the legislature last year that Buono supported. At the same time, Christie has already picked up support from two unions that backed Democratic former Gov. Jon Corzine in 2009.
Regarding labor, Buono said, "I expect to have, you know, the grassroots support of progressives. I assume I'm going to have widespread support but I'm not a political pundit, (and) I'm not going to go out there and analyze how I'm going to win the race at this point."
She's had a sometimes rocky relationship with organized labor groups, despite supporting collective bargaining. Buono recalled a time in 2009 when she worked on pension reforms "when there wasn't, there wasn't a grounds, there wasn't recognition by leadership that we need this. I had unions picketing my office."
At separate points, Buono has crossed Sweeney and Codey. Her vote against a pension package championed by Sweeney and Christie cost Buono her position of state Senate majority leader. She justified her opposition by saying she opposed the "elimination of collective bargaining for health benefits for public employees. ... That's where I drew a line in the sand."
Despite the consequences, "I would do it again," she said.
Buono's typical stump speech generally focuses on the economy more than anything else, particularly the state's 9.7-percent unemployment rate. Yet when asked about whether she would use social issues in television ads as a way to show a contrast with Christie, Buono said, "It's not a matter of using it. I think in New Jersey, we deserve a governor that's not out of step with our stance on social issues. ... [Christie's] totally out of step with New Jersey on the social issues, including marriage equality and choice."
Asked again if she would run television ads highlighting that, she replied, "I'm not at a point to make that decision." She mentioned instead that she is "focused on hiring staff" at the moment.