TRENTON - With the gubernatorial election less than a month away, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is telling voters that he might not serve out his full second term if elected.
The admission might hurt any other candidate.
The Republican governor said he could "walk and chew gum at the same time," balancing the demands of a second term and his political future.
That's exactly what Christie is doing as he uses his gubernatorial election to make the case for a higher office.
Buoyed by polls suggesting he has a commanding lead in his re-election bid, Christie's team is assembling a broad coalition of supporters _ groups of Democrats, union workers, women and minorities that Republican candidates elsewhere struggle to attract. He says his re-election campaign offers a road map of sorts for beleaguered Republicans across the nation as the party works to expand.
"I am not going to declare tonight ... that I am or I'm not running for president," Christie said and later added, "I won't make those decisions until I have to."
The comments underscored the broader stakes for the governor. Should he run, Christie would begin campaigning in the midst of his second term as governor.
His debate opponent, Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono, 60, who has struggled to stay on-message and has been outraised by more than 4-to-1, attacked Christie as a nationally ambitious politician whose every calculation is based on his national aspirations.
"It doesn't bother me that you're running for president. What bothers me is how you're running for president," Buono said.
Christie, 51, who is sometimes accused of bullying his opponents, did not apologize for his sometimes-harsh language.
"Using direct and blunt language is something I've done my whole life. It's the way my mother raised me," Christie said. "I am who I am. And I'm not going to change. I think they're comfortable with the leadership I've provided over the last 4 years in this state."
He also touted his ability to reach consensus with New Jersey's Democrat-led Legislature, and his signature bipartisan achievements of ending lifetime teacher tenure and winning benefits concessions from public-sector unions with the gridlock in Washington that has led to a government shutdown.
Buono replied that Christie's stance on other issues - his opposition to gun control legislation, his decision to block funding for women's health care, and his move to veto legislation that would have legalized same-sex marriage in New Jersey - were tailor-made for Republican primary voters.
Christie said he believes marriage should be between one man and one woman, but suggested that the issue should be decided by a statewide referendum.
"If they do decide to change the definition of marriage by referendum, then I'll support that law and enforce that part of the constitution with the same vigor that I've done over the last four years with every other part," he said.
Christie portrayed his opponent as a tax-and-spend liberal, much like former Gov. Jon Corzine, whom Christie unseated four years ago.
The message wasn't new, but viewers saw a thinner version of the governor. Christie said last month he's more than halfway to the dieting goal he set after undergoing weight-loss surgery in February. Having faced continued questions about his health, Christie said during the debate that he would release his personal medical records.
Polls have shown Christie with a consistently strong lead, despite New Jersey's Democratic tilt.
Buono, a 20-year state legislator, is giving up her state Senate seat to run against Christie. When asked for an attribute they admire in each other, Christie complimented his opponent as "a good and caring mother and someone who cares deeply about public service in the state."
Buono said of Christie, "he's good on late-night TV, he's just not so good in New Jersey."
The event also offered Christie an opportunity to practice his debate skills against a female candidate _ a possible preview for a 2016 presidential race expected to feature Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton. Christie faced off against a female competitor in debate preparation sessions to help ensure he wasn't too aggressive.
Asked Tuesday why voters should give him another term, Christie said he's been honest about the state's problems and worked with Democrats to find bipartisan solutions.
"That's why I'm endorsed by 49 Democratic elected officials. That's why we've been able to get things done in Trenton compared to what's going on in Washington, D.C.," he said.
New Jersey voters of both parties report being pleased with Christie's handling of Superstorm Sandy last year, when he appeared to put politics on hold as he welcomed President Barack Obama to tour his battered state shortly before the last presidential contest _ a move that irked many conservatives across the country. And leaders of the state's minority community applaud his outreach to groups long ignored by Republicans.
"He was willing to come to a predominantly African-American community," said Michael Blunt, the Democratic mayor of Chesilhurst, N.J., and a strong Christie supporter. "He's man to man. He talks to you as if you're his equal."
The two meet again next Tuesday for the second and final debate required under state election law for candidates who are accepting public financing.