Gov. Chris Christie is expected to endorse the Republican running for U.S. Senate in New Jersey, but otherwise stay hands-off in a race featuring his Democratic friend and political ally Cory Booker.
Christie won't be eager to tarnish Booker, the 44-year-old mayor of Newark who is heavily favored to be the state's next senator.
Challenger Steve Lonegan is trying to buck history by becoming the first Republican elected to the Senate from New Jersey in 40-plus years. Booker would make history by becoming the state's first black senator. Early polls show Booker, who entered the race with a national profile, well ahead.
The Monmouth University Polling Institute's Patrick Murray predicts Christie will appear alongside Lonegan only once _ for an endorsement Murray said the Republican governor is obliged to make to appease the party's conservative wing.
Christie and Booker enjoy a good working relationship that was strengthened when Booker decided to run for the Senate rather than challenge Christie for governor. They formed a powerful alliance to eliminate lifetime teacher tenure, with the Newark teachers union becoming the first to ratify a contract that provides for bonus pay based on classroom performance.
While they disagree on social issues like gay marriage, they are like-minded on government workers paying more for their retirement and health benefits. The two appeared in a "Seinfeld'' parody video last year, and strolled the beach together at the governor's Shore residence.
Booker has been respectful of Christie even on the stump, careful not to mention the governor by name _ or bash his policies _ while campaigning for Christie's Democratic opponent, Sen. Barbara Buono. Lonegan and Christie, on the other hand, exchanged pointed rhetoric while adversaries during the 2009 gubernatorial primary, and have been at arms-length since.
Lonegan backers apparently grasp the dynamic of the race.
"The governor's got his race to run, and Steve has his,'' said Lonegan strategist Rick Shaftan. "He's got his issues and Steve has his. They're totally different _ state and federal.''
The Oct. 16 special election will decide who succeeds the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
Christie's re-election will be decided three weeks later, and he is counting on winning big to showcase his bipartisan appeal and raise his stature as a possible 2016 presidential candidate.
Booker has been running as someone who brings people together. Lonegan, who has run two unsuccessful campaigns for governor and one for Congress, can seem antagonistic.
The governor already has been asked to explain a social media post by the Lonegan campaign that suggested Booker's foreign policy knowledge was gleaned from Newark's ethnically diverse neighborhoods. The primary-night tweet was widely panned as racially tinged. Lonegan campaign aide said when the candidate found out about it, he ordered it removed.
Christie set the special Senate election in October, avoiding having to share his own Nov. 5 re-election bid with a Senate contest _ featuring Booker _ that would have topped the ballot. With Booker on the Democratic ticket, voters who would not otherwise bother could show up at the polls, diminishing Christie's victory margin. The extra election is costing the state $12 million.
In the interim, the governor sent former Attorney General Jeff Chiesa to hold the Senate seat, leaving some to wonder why Christie didn't appoint a strong Republican now and schedule the election for November 2014, which would have given the GOP choice time to gain voter confidence. Booker, who decided to run before Lautenberg died in June, had a built-in fundraising advantage and name recognition that Christie may have felt too difficult to overcome.
As a high-profile senator, Booker could help Christie court black votes should he seek the Republican presidential nomination.
The strategy is not without political risk for a governor who's already taken heat for embracing President Barack Obama during a visit after Superstorm Sandy and who recently swatted aside Republican Sen. Rand Paul's suggestion that they hash out their differences over a beer. Like Christie, Paul is thinking about running for president.
If Christie appears too distant, it could irritate Lonegan, the former director of the anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity, and his conservative cronies, at a time when he would be wooing the national party base.