By Ellen Wulfhorst and Barbara Goldberg
(Reuters) – New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was headed for a landslide re-election win on Tuesday, a first step on what is expected to be a far bumpier path in a likely bid for the White House in 2016.
The Republican incumbent leads Democratic challenger state Senator Barbara Buono by 20 points, according to the most recent public opinion poll released by Monmouth University on Monday.
Polls close at 8 p.m. EST.
A strong win by Christie could help solidify his standing in the national Republican Party, showing he can win votes from both parties and reach compromises with Democrats.
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.
He is perhaps best known for praising U.S. President Barack Obama for his response to New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy devastated the state last year – an image that resonated with independent voter Lindsay Wilson, 32, a stay-at-home mother of two.
“If an opposing president supports him, he’s got to be good. That was huge,” Wilson said. “The Republicans will have a hard time with knowing that he crossed the fence.”
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, causing billions of dollars in damage and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
He leads Buono 60 percent to 35 percent in communities hardest hit by Sandy, the Monmouth University poll showed. Statewide, he leads 57 percent to 37 percent.
A big win would catch the eye of potential major political donors nationally, said Heath Brown, assistant professor of political science at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.
“Those (donors) would be the people most directly watching the margin of his victory on Tuesday,” Brown said.
Christie’s moderate politics could pose problems in such places as South Carolina, an early primary state that is home to a significant number of evangelical Christians and more conservative Republicans.
“I don’t think he’ll have traction nationally. It doesn’t seem moderation is in vogue in America,” said John Larkin, 65, a financial consultant who voted as an independent for Christie.
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,” said Democratic political strategist Hank Sheinkopf.
Christie said at a campaign stop in Hackensack, New Jersey, last week that “we’re driving home for the biggest margin we can get.”