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Cory Booker won't challenge Chris Christie for NJ governor, sources say

Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker, left, speaks with

Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker, left, speaks with Gov. Chris Christie during groundbreaking ceremonies for the Teachers Village in downtown Newark in this file photo. (Feb. 9, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker, a rising Democratic star who spoke at his party's national convention, has chosen a 2014 run for U.S. Senate over a challenge to Governor Chris Christie next year, according to three people familiar with his plans.

Instead, Booker, 43, will announce as soon as today that he's formed an exploratory committee for the seat now held by Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg, an 88-year-old serving his fifth term, said the people, who weren't authorized to speak publicly about the mayor's plans. Booker didn't immediately return a call to his mobile phone.

Christie, a 50-year-old Republican, is enjoying record approval ratings for his response to Hurricane Sandy. Booker had led the field of potential challengers to the governor, and several Democrats said he was their best hope for ousting Christie.

"He'd be a great U.S. senator because he's intelligent and he really knows how to identify the issues," said Assemblyman Al Coutinho, a Democrat from Newark who is close to Booker. "That's where his skill set is. That's where he can best serve the city of Newark and this state." Booker, a Stanford University and Yale Law School graduate, is a frequent Twitter user with 1.3 million followers. He has sent more than 23,000 messages about everything from responding to residents' complaints about garbage to sending inspirational quotes about being a leader. He gained national attention for rushing into a burning building to rescue his next-door neighbor in April, and living off food stamps for a week this month to show the difficulty of relying on the program.

Not Going First, he will have to convince Lautenberg to step aside.

Lautenberg is "not going away," said Julie Roginsky, a Democratic strategist and former aid to Democratic Governor Jon Corzine. The senator is a tough fighter and even with his age will prove a formidable foe, she said.

"A generation of politicians have forgotten that at their own peril," she said before Booker's announcement.

A November poll by Quinnipiac University shows Booker's statewide appeal. He would dominate a hypothetical Democratic primary for governor with 41 percent of the vote, followed by former acting Governor Richard Codey with 12 percent, according to the poll. No other candidate topped 4 percent.

Potential Challengers The mayor trailed Christie by 18 percentage points in a potential match-up, according to the Quinnipiac poll. Before Sandy, Christie led Booker by 4 points.

The poll's list of potential Democratic challengers also included Barbara Buono, a state senator from Metuchen who was the first to declare her candidacy; Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald; and Assemblyman John Wisniewski.

Wisniewski, chairman of the Democratic State Committee, said on Dec. 8 that he won't run for governor. Greenwald said in an interview he's "realistic" about the race and leaning toward remaining in the Assembly. Senate President Stephen Sweeney said he was considering a run if Booker sat it out.

Booker said on Dec. 9 that he would announce his intentions within two weeks and had declined to discuss his plans. During a brief interview this month at a fundraiser for a Democratic state lawmaker, Booker said he was evaluating "where I can best serve." It took him 40 minutes to enter the room as well- wishers and political operatives rushed him with hands outstretched, and mobile phones strained to get a picture.

Next Year Caley Gray, a spokesman for Lautenberg, said retirement is the "last thing on his mind" following Sandy and he'll turn his attention to politics next year. Christie has pledged to work with Democrats in the state's congressional delegation, including Lautenberg and Senator Robert Menendez, to win federal assistance for the costs of the Oct. 29 storm.

Lautenberg had retired from politics in 2000 and Democrats brought him back in 2002 after Democratic U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli abandoned his campaign amid ethics complaints.

"Assuming there isn't a costly and bitter primary, history dictates that if he gets the nomination, he'll win," Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said of Booker. "We elect Republican governors all the time. We don't elect Republican U.S. senators." Booker, a Rhodes Scholar, promised to reduce crime and lure businesses to Newark when he took over in 2006 from former Mayor Sharpe James, a Democrat who held the office for 20 years. James later went to jail for helping a woman profit off city land deals.

Booker served as co-chairman of the Democratic Party's platform committee for its national convention in September. He was the choice of more than half, 59 percent, of Democratic primary voters to supplant Lautenberg in the Senate, according to a Nov. 29 survey released by Public Policy Polling. Only 36 percent of that group said Lautenberg should seek re-election.

Newark has received national attention since Booker and Christie appeared on the Oprah Winfrey television show in September 2010 to announce a $100 million donation from Facebook Inc. founder Mark Zuckerberg for improving Newark's schools. Winfrey contributed to Booker's mayoral campaign.

--Editor: Stacie Sherman, Mark Schoifet To contact the reporter on this story: Terrence Dopp in Trenton at To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at 12-20-12 1108EST