- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 17, 2017

KEANSBURG, N.J. (AP) - Gov. Chris Christie has plenty of competition among those seeking to succeed him, but as Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno showed during her official campaign rollout Tuesday, no one is casting themselves as the two-term governor’s political heir.

Guadagno, the state’s first lieutenant governor and twice elected on the Republican ticket with Christie, launched her campaign criticizing Christie’s $300 million statehouse renovation, knocking his use of the state police helicopter for travel and promising in a word to make the state “better.”

She is the latest candidate to enter this year’s contest as Christie contends with a record-low approval rating and Democrats feel confident they’ll take back the governorship.

But she’s not the first to chart a different course from the term-limited Christie. Republican Assemblyman and candidate Jack Ciattarelli has a slogan promising a “new direction,” and Democrats are competing to scrap Christie’s policies, such as opposition to minimum wage increases.

“I think he is going to cast a very long shadow over this race. It’s not just his record and abysmal approval ratings, he’s a larger-than-life figure,” said Krista Jenkins, executive director of the PublicMind poll at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Republicans are casting the race as an opportunity to check Democrats who control the Legislature. Democrats are arguing they represent the biggest check on Republican President-elect Donald Trump’s power.

Guadagno’s relationship with the governor has been strained at times, and the timing of her campaign rollout further underscored their differences. She staged the event at a Keansburg Mexican restaurant owned by a man who claims she helped him after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Christie, meanwhile, invited the press to an unrelated event in Newark around the same time.

“We simply do not have the money to turn the statehouse into the Palace of Versailles,” she said in her most pointed barb at the governor, a reference to Christie’s plan to spend $300 million to renovate the deteriorating statehouse.

She also pointed out she has traveled across New Jersey in a vehicle - “not in a helicopter,” a reference to Christie’s use of the state police chopper. The state GOP and Christie reimbursed the state for the use of the chopper in 2011 when the governor used it to attend his son’s baseball game and campaign contributor meetings.

For much of the administration, Guadagno differed little with Christie, but recently split with the governor over his support of Trump and a gas tax increase that went toward transportation funding and other tax cuts.

“If you think I’ve been silent for the last seven years you simply haven’t been paying attention,” she said.

Asked after the event whether she had talked to the governor about an endorsement, she said she would take any endorsement from anyone who wants to back her.

Christie’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

With the campaign slogan “Better,” Guadagno said her leadership would be a break from the two-term governor’s handling of the state. But sounding like Christie, she praised the state’s economic recovery since their election in 2009 during a deep the national recession. She said she would lower taxes, fund schools fairly and continue to fight the state’s opioid drug crisis, which is Christie’s top priority in his final year in office.

She also disputed criticism that she has stood in the governor’s shadow for seven years, pointing to her trips across the state to meet with residents and businesses.

Michael Egenton, an executive with the state Chamber of Commerce, which doesn’t endorse candidates, credited Guadagno for becoming an effective point of contact for businesses. He said his member businesses tell him that her accessibility helped them make decisions quickly.

Among the Democrats competing in the June 6 primary are former Goldman Sachs executive Phil Murphy, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, state Sen. Ray Lesniak and former Clinton administration treasury official Jim Johnson.

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