HARRISON, N.J. — A second term all but assured, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is casting himself as an inclusive Republican who transcends political lines and a pragmatic leader whose results-oriented approach offers valuable lessons for dysfunctional party leaders in Washington.
"We need to send a message to all of America that the only way our state and our country gets better is if people work together across the aisle," Christie said during a rally in the campaign's waning days at an Elks Lodge packed with pro-Christie Democrats.
"My job is to be the CEO of this state, not to be some ideologue," he added.
It's a closing message that doubles as the opening argument for a prospective presidential run. But a resounding victory Tuesday in a Democratic-leaning state over a little-known and underfunded state senator, as polls suggest is likely, doesn't automatically translate into success at the national level.
Democrats and Republicans agree that Christie always was positioned to win big in his first re-election test. Challenger Barbara Buono has struggled to attract support from even her party's most devoted allies.
Signaling how little confidence she has inspired in the party, the Democratic Governors Association, which is designed to help Democrats win governor's races, spent less than $5,000 on the New Jersey contest while pouring more than $6 million into the Virginia election, also Tuesday.
Other would-be Christie critics shied away from New Jersey, giving the incumbent little resistance as he sells himself as an electable GOP leader with particular appeal among women and minorities, groups that Republicans elsewhere often struggle to attract. Christie's advisers suggest that would be his pitch during any future national campaign.
Beyond New Jersey, Democrats express regret that they didn't do more to highlight Christie's political warts, challenge his economic record in a state with high unemployment, and use the moment to exploit his vulnerabilities ahead of a possible national run.
Outside groups were reluctant to spend money on a race perceived as unwinnable for Democrats, particularly when there was a more competitive contest in Virginia.
"At no point in this race was there tension he might lose," said Bill Burton, who led the super political action committee devoted to President Barack Obama's re-election. "What you don't know is if his feet were really put to the fire, could he keep from lashing out?"
Christie tried to insulate himself from any real challenge from outside groups by spending big on advertising.
His campaign spent $11.5 million on television and radio ads through Election Day, compared with Buono's $2.1 million, according to SMG Delta, a Virginia-based firm that tracks political spending. The only other major player on television was Garden State Forward, a PAC formed by the state's largest teachers union, which spent almost $1.8 million against Christie.
Left-leaning groups that did engage struggled to make their criticisms stick.
"Chris Christie is not a moderate," said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY's List, which works to elect Democratic women and argues that Christie, who opposes abortion rights, isn't good for women. "When you sell a false bill of goods, it is going to catch up with you."
Democrats complain that Christie skirted scrutiny for saddling taxpayers with a $24 million tab by scheduling two elections three weeks apart to avoid sharing the ballot with Democrat Corey Booker, who just joined the U.S. Senator.
They call attention to Christie's decision to use taxpayer dollars on a post-Superstorm Sandy advertising campaign that featured him in a starring role, and cite the questions that Mitt Romney's vice presidential checking team raised about the governor's medical history and early political career.
Even with polls predicting a big victory, the Christie camp is trying to lower expectations in a state that Obama won by more than 17 points. Should Christie break the 50 percent mark, he would become the first Republican governor to do so in New Jersey since 1985.
A number of Democrats attended the Harrison rally Friday night.Comment on this story
"This is a blue town. This is a blue state," said Gina Davies, a lifelong Democrat who praised Christie's support for a local redevelopment project. "I like the fact that he makes tough decisions."
She's never supported a Republican before, but is willing to forgive Christie's positions on gay marriage and abortion — Christie opposes both. But she won't be so forgiving if he goes after the White House.
"I wouldn't vote for him for president," said Davies, a 33-year-old financial analyst, as she held a large Christie sign that proclaimed "Strong Leadership."
"I love Hillary Clinton."