Gov. Chris Christie (R) was re-elected with ease Tuesday, demonstrating the kind of broad, bipartisan appeal that will serve as his opening argument should he seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
The Associated Press called the race based on interviews with voters as they left polling places. The interviews were conducted for the AP and television networks ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News by Edison Research.
While the final margin of victory over little-known Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono was still being tabulated in this Democratic-leaning state, Governor Christie was expected to become the first Republican in a quarter-century to receive more than 50 percent of the New Jersey vote. This, in a state that President Barack Obama carried a year ago by more than 17 points, his biggest margin in the nation.
Backed by soaring approval ratings for his leadership after Superstorm Sandy, the tell-it-like-it-is governor built a winning coalition by aggressively courting constituencies that often shun the GOP: minorities, women and even Democrats, who outnumber Republicans among registered voters by more than 3-to-2.
Christie, who is openly considering running for president, has said his success offers a template for broadening the GOP's appeal after the disastrous 2012 election cycle and the party's record-low approval ratings following the recent government shutdown. Christie will take over later this month as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, a position that will further raise his national profile.
Christie becomes his party's biggest winner on a night in which the GOP was expected to lose a gubernatorial election in Virginia that featured conservative firebrand Ken Cuccinelli. Christie, in contrast, painted himself as a pragmatic leader who worked with Democrats to get the job done during his four years in office.
It was a picture that largely went unchallenged during an election that was never really in doubt.
The Obama administration declined to deploy its best political weapons against Christie, while Buono struggled to earn the support of her party's most devoted supporters. The Democratic Governors Association spent less than $5,000 on the contest while pouring more than $6 million into the Virginia election.
Christie built a national fundraising network, dramatically outspending Buono on the airwaves and improving his organization beyond New Jersey. The Christie campaign spent $11.5 million on TV and radio ads, compared with Buono's $2.1 million, according to SMG Delta, a Virginia-based firm that tracks political spending.
Buono repeatedly tried to use Christie's presidential ambitions against him, accusing him of putting his interests ahead of New Jersey's.
She supported gay marriage and abortion rights, while Christie opposes both. When it became clear last month that the New Jersey Supreme Court would rule in favor of gay marriage, Christie dropped an appeal, allowing the practice to become legal in the state.
During a debate less than a month ago, Christie admitted he might not serve out his full second term should he launch a White House bid.
"I won't make those decisions until I have to," he said.
Facing a skeptical moderator, he replied in the usual blunt, you-gotta-be-kidding-me manner that has proved appealing to voters of both parties: "I can walk and chew gum at the same time. I can do this job and also deal with my future."
Christie, 51, was already popular when Sandy slammed into the coast a year ago, damaging 360,000 homes and businesses and plunging 5.5 million people into darkness. His popularity soared as he donned a blue fleece pullover and led the state through its worst natural disaster, whether embracing Obama or consoling a tearful 9-year-old who had lost her house.
He also underwent weight-loss surgery in February and has been shedding pounds steadily since, a step that could dispel some of the health concerns that have hung over his political future.
Christie's bipartisan appeal does not sit well with GOP conservatives, who are the party's most passionate voters and wield outsize influence in Republican presidential politics. But in a Tuesday interview with CNN, even before his victory was official, Christie appeared to be looking ahead.
Asked if he was a moderate, Christie used a word rarely uttered on the campaign trail in recent days: "I'm a conservative," he said.
"I've governed as a conservative in this state, and I think that's led to some people disagreeing with me in our state," he continued. "The difference has been is I haven't tried to hide it or mask it as something different."
Here's a look at the preliminary highlights from an exit poll of New Jersey voters in Tuesday's elections, conducted for The Associated Press:
CHRISTIE WINS RE-ELECTION
Gov. Chris Christie elected to his second term as governor of New Jersey with strong support from whites, moderates, independents, voters over 40, and those opposing the health care law, among others.
TOP CONCERNS: ECONOMY
Nearly half of New Jersey voters surveyed said the economy was one issue that mattered most in deciding their vote with about half as many saying taxes were their top issue when voting. Even fewer said education and less than one in 10 chose same-sex marriage as the issue mattering most to them at the ballot box.
Almost six in 10 said the condition of the economy is either not so good or poor and voters were divided over whether New Jersey's economy is either better or worse today than it was four years ago.
Almost nine in 10 voters said they are worried about the direction of the nation's economy over the next year.
FEDERAL GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN BLAME
New Jersey voters were more likely to blame Republicans in Congress than President Barack Obama for the recent federal government shutdown. Over half said they think Republicans in Congress are more to blame; about four in 10 said they blame the president. Voters in the state were split over how the president is doing his job overall.
Voters were divided over how they feel about the health care law that was enacted in 2010.
A slight majority of voters said government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. More than four in 10 said the government should do more to solve problems.
Around half of the voters in the Garden State said they have a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party compared with about four in 10 having a favorable opinion of the Republican Party.
Almost half said they oppose the tea party movement and about one in five said they support the movement. Nearly a third said they were neutral on the movement.
The preliminary exit poll of 1,549 New Jersey voters was conducted for AP and the television networks by Edison Research in a random sample of 40 precincts statewide. Results were subject to sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points; it is higher for subgroups.