TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) -- New Jersey State Sen. Barbara Buono's young gubernatorial candidacy gained strength Monday, following endorsements in key northern counties and a call by Democratic leaders for unity in the November governor's race.
Buono (D-Middlesex County), picked up support in Bergen, Passaic and Hudson counties, and the backing of two congressmen – Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.)
Democratic State Committee Chairman John Wisniewski also endorsed Buono Monday, as two Democratic heavyweights who some viewed as stronger candidates against Gov. Chris Christie announced long-anticipated decisions not to run.
``It is time for our party to unite around Senator Buono and begin the campaign to take back our state from a governor who is more concerned with sound bites and rhetoric then solving the problems facing our communities,'' said Bergen County Democratic Party chairman Lou Stellato. Two million residents live in the Bergen, Passaic and Hudson counties combined.
Pallone called Buono``our strongest candidate'' against Christie. Pascrell backed Buono after spurning earlier efforts to recruit him to run.
Democratic State Committee Chairman John Wisniewski, who put aside his own gubernatorial ambitions, also endorsed Buono Monday.
``I am calling upon all New Jersey Democrats to unite behind Sen. Buono's campaign and ensure that she will be our Democratic nominee,'' he said in a statement. ``Her work in the last month to build a strong organization, raise money and garner support among both grassroots activists and leaders in the party has been impressive.''
Somerset County Democrats were the first to formally endorse Buono two weeks ago. She'd since gotten endorsements or pledges of support from Democrats in Monmouth, Middlesex and Ocean counties. Democrats in the southern counties beginning with Burlington have not committed to a candidate.
Also Monday, Senate President Stephen Sweeney of Gloucester County said he would focus on keeping the Legislature under Democratic control rather than mount a gubernatorial campaign. Democrats worry that Christie, whose popularity soared after Superstorm Sandy, could have coattails in November that result in down-ballot upsets. Democrats have a 24-16 edge in the state Senate.
Sen. Dick Codey of Essex County, who was acting governor for 14 months after Gov. Jim McGreevey resigned, took himself out of the running for governor Friday. Newark Mayor Cory Booker ended speculation that he might run in December.
Asked Monday about becoming the Democratic establishment's default candidate, Buono seemed to harbor no ill will. She said her candidacy is young and choosing among party candidates is a process; her official kickoff will be Saturday.
``I was the first person to declare, and I declared before I knew who was in and who was out because this fight is too important to focus on the political considerations that are going on in the party,'' said Buono, who is an underdog against Christie even with her party's support.
The governor, 50, will be able to raise as much money as he needs to mount a re-election campaign. He raised $2 million in the weeks after announcing his re-election bid. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is hosting a fundraiser for the governor next month in California. His campaign did not respond to an email message seeking comment Monday afternoon.
Buono, 59, will rely on public matching funds. She has more than $200,000 of the $380,000 she needs to qualify for the $2-for-$1 state match.
Buono has served in the state Legislature since 1994.
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