By Ellen Wulfhorst
Nov 5 (Reuters) - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was poised on Tuesday to win re-election by a landslide, the latest polls show, a first step on what is expected to be a far bumpier path in his likely bid for the White House in 2016.
The Republican incumbent leads Democratic challenger state Sen. Barbara Buono by 20 points, according to the most recent poll, released by Monmouth University on Monday.
Polls opened at 6 a.m. EST (1100 GMT) on Tuesday and close at 8 p.m. EST statewide.
A strong win by Christie could help solidify his standing in the national Republican Party, showing he can win votes from both sides of the political aisle and reach compromises with partisan opponents to get things done.
Christie, a blunt, tough-talking former prosecutor, has been highly visible working with Democrats, such as newly elected U.S. Senator Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark.
But he is perhaps best known for praising U.S. President Barack Obama for his response to Superstorm Sandy last year.
That gesture, which Christie explained was part of his job, infuriated many national Republicans who thought it hurt their presidential candidate Mitt Romney days later at the ballot box.
Christie's popularity has remained high since the storm swept ashore, wreaking billions of dollars in damages and displacing hundreds of thousands of residents.
He leads Buono 60 to 35 percent in communities hardest hit by Sandy, the Monmouth University poll showed. Statewide, he leads 57 percent to 37 percent.
A large win will help catch the eye of potential big political donors who could give Christie a key boost onto the national stage, said Heath Brown, assistant professor of political science at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.
"For Chris Christie, this will be very helpful in convincing potential donors/supporters that he's a viable candidate," Brown said. "Those would be the people most directly watching the margin of his victory on Tuesday."
TOO MODERATE FOR NATIONAL PARTY?
For Christie, the leap to the national stage will be tricky because he is too moderate for many party members, said Democratic political strategist Hank Sheinkopf.
He is seen as having close ties to Obama, and under Christie's watch, an open U.S. Senate seat in New Jersey remained in Democratic hands and gay marriage became legal in the state, he said.
That could pose problems in such places as South Carolina, an early primary stop that is home to a significant number of evangelical Christians and more conservative Republicans.
"The problem will be what conservative Republicans put in front of him so they can kill him as a presidential candidate by the time he gets to South Carolina," said Sheinkopf.
Christie may like to argue that he is a Republican who can get elected by appealing to members of both parties, but "they want to fight an ideological battle," he said.
At home in New Jersey, Christie said at a campaign stop in Hackensack last week that "we're driving home for the biggest margin we can get."
"We want to take advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity to turn this blue state red," he added. (Writing and reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Scott Malone and Andre Grenon)
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