01/16/2013 06:26 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2013

Democratic New Jersey Mayors Search For Opponent To Chris Christie In Governor's Race

New Jersey Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, right, D-Thorofare,N.J., and Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver, left, D-East
New Jersey Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, right, D-Thorofare,N.J., and Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver, left, D-East Orange, N.J., listen as Gov. Chris Christie delivers his State Of The State address at the Statehouse, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, in Trenton, N.J. Christie promised in his annual State of the State address Tuesday that New Jersey will be back "stronger than ever" after Superstorm Sandy and will do it without returning to its "old ways of wasteful spending and rising taxes." (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

WASHINGTON -- Democratic mayors in New Jersey want anyone interested in challenging Gov. Chris Christie (R) in November to enter the race soon.

The mayors, in Washington to lobby Congress on gun control, told The Huffington Post that the continuing speculation over possible gubernatorial contenders needs to come to an end, but they still disagree about whether the field should be an open primary among all comers.

"I am looking for any Democratic candidate to step forward sooner rather than later," Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr told HuffPost. "I believe it is time. The primary is in June. There has been a lot of speculation and a lot of conversations."

State Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Metuchen) remains the only announced Democratic candidate for governor, while state Sen. Richard Codey (D-Roseland) continues to make moves signaling a candidacy.

New Jersey Democrats are frantically searching for an alternative to Buono, who has been trailing in initial polls against the popular Christie. Democratic Party county chairs in the state are reportedly setting a Feb. 1 deadline for candidates to step forward in the race.

Codey has yet to announce his candidacy, but he has planned a trip to Washington next week to discuss campaign funding with outside groups. He is reportedly looking for at least $30 million in outside group spending on his behalf should he challenge Christie. (That ambitious ask is nearly as much as the $40 million outside groups spent in Ohio last year in an unsuccessful effort to defeat Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown.)

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage also are exploring candidacies, and a movement has started to back Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill (D-Montclair).

The mayors who spoke with HuffPost, however, centered their speculation on a likely Buono vs. Codey primary race. Maplewood Mayor Victor DeLuca, who said he is likely to back Codey, stressed that both state senators make strong "contrasts" to Christie and noted their records of "not playing ball" with the governor on a number of issues, including pension and benefits reform.

Sweeney, on the other hand, has had a close working relationship with Christie on a number of issues and even deposed Buono as Senate majority leader.

Even though Christie enjoyed a 72 percent approval rating in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, DeLuca is looking past it. "I don't think Christie is invincible," he said.

Roselle Mayor Jamel Holley said he remains neutral in the Democratic race so far but played up Buono as a candidate who could defeat Christie. He cited Buono's life story, which includes working her way through law school, being on food stamps and coming close to seeking welfare benefits.

"She understands and knows what people go through; she's lived it herself," Holley said. "Once people know her story, they will commit."

Buono received the backing of Monmouth County Democrats this week and has received backing from party leaders in Middlesex and Somerset Counties.

Meanwhile, influential state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) is calling on Codey to enter the race. DeLuca said Lesniak's voice will be respected among Democrats, but noted Lesniak would need to find funds for a Codey candidacy.

Both Mahr and Holley hail from Union County, a Democratic stronghold where Lesniak leads the county party. Mahr said she is waiting until the county party chair, Charlotte DeFilippo, makes an endorsement before deciding on a candidate, but she also pointed to Lesniak's potential influence. "When he talks, a lot of people listen," she said.

Holley stressed the need for Democrats to rally behind someone.

"I think the party will unite behind a candidate," he said. "We need to unite soon or it will be the destruction of our party in New Jersey."



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