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Booker vs. Christie Would Be the Best Campaign of 2013 (Or Maybe Any Year)

By 8:00 on the morning after Superstorm Sandy struck New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie had already appeared on “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America” and “CBS This Morning,” not to mention CNN, Fox and MSNBC. He wore a blue fleece, the weathered glare of a man in charge of a crisis, and a scowl that made what he said seem true: He didn't give a damn about the presidential election one week away, even though he had spent the last 13 months as a surrogate for Mitt Romney. Instead, he was headed out for a helicopter survey of the Jersey Shore, where he would see the Seaside Heights log flume—which his daughter had ridden last summer—floating in the Atlantic. He would see the boardwalk—where his near-fisticuffs with a heckler in July landed him on TMZ—lying in a pile of splinters. He would see, up close, the worst disaster in the state’s modern history.

“I just never thought I would see, what I saw today, ever,” Christie told the press that night, in a powerful clip immediately posted on his YouTube channel (5.9 million views and counting).

That same morning, Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, opened his day with a typically uplifting message to his 1.2 million Twitter followers: “Today will be a difficult day. It will demand our fortitude, patience & endurance.” Christie may have been managing a multi-agency recovery operation, but Booker was a spiritual guide and freelance lifesaver on the streets of his darkened city, using Twitter like a bat signal. After a constituent tweeted at him about her disabled parents, Booker went to their apartment and reported back that he had accounted for them—and for everyone else in the building. He fielded complaints about exploding transformers, trees trapping people in trucks, and shelters in need of blankets. And since the electricity was on at his house, he invited Newark residents to come over, watch DVDs, charge cell phones and sleep in his guest bed while he was out saving people. More than a dozen took him up on the invitation.

That perhaps the two most compelling politicians in America hail from the same state is dramatic enough. Now consider that soon they may be running against each other.

Christie, the Republican convention’s keynote speaker, is up for re-election next year. The 50-year-old hasn't said whether he’ll seek it, but some political observers wondered if his controversial bro-hug of President Obama after Sandy indicated that he was more focused on keeping his seat in blue New Jersey than on remaining loyal to the GOP’s fading nominee. As he often says, “I love this job,” and besides: he probably doesn't want to be a one-term governor when he runs for president in 2016.

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Booker, meanwhile, has the Democratic nomination for governor locked up—if he wants it, which he must. The 43-year-old is nationally famous thanks to two documentaries (Street Fight and Brick City), well-publicized heroics (he shook off his security detail to save his neighbor from her burning home last spring) and an iconoclastic personal story (while a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, this black Baptist became president of the L’Chaim Society).

Visions of a Booker-Christie match-up make political junkies weak at the knees, even though both were bloodied a bit during the presidential campaign. Booker was forced into an awkward mea culpa that looked like a hostage video after he called attacks on Bain Capital “nauseating.” Christie's keynote speech at the GOP convention, meanwhile, was widely panned for focusing on himself and New Jersey instead of Romney, and there were Republican cries of “traitor!” when he praised Obama’s response to Sandy. These controversies, though, only seemed to bolster their national profiles.

There are no nationwide campaigns next year, and just two gubernatorial seats are up for grabs, so this race—hypothetical though it remains—would have America’s attention. Money would flow: Both are beloved by Wall Street and, having campaigned on other candidates’ behalf, are loaded with IOUs from political fundraisers around the country. Coverage would be nonstop: Both are extraordinarily talented at handling the microphone and delivering social media–optimized sound bites. And the stakes would be high: Both have designs on the presidency, and are aware of the benefits of handing the other a premature political death.

Putting all that aside, if you like politics— if you like America, dammit—it'll be tremendously fun to watch for several reasons.

For starters, it's going to be awkward. Christie and Booker are friends, as close as two politicians with identical aspirations can be. They don’t attack each other, they text all the time, and they shot an amusing parody video together. Over the summer they cut away from a party at the gubernatorial Jersey Shore house and took a stroll on the beach, just the two of them. They're even Facebook friends, having sat on Oprah Winfrey's couch last year and collected a $100 million investment from Mark Zuckerberg for Newark's schools. From education reform to a property tax cap, they have supported each other in a bipartisan way that is unfathomable in the nation’s capital.

Second, this will be Campaign 2.0. They may love a good TV interview, but Booker and Christie have drawn much of their popularity by circumventing traditional news and developing their own social-media channels for disseminating information. Booker has the second-most Twitter followers of any politician who hasn’t run for president and he recently cofounded a video-based social media company called Waywire. Christie, meanwhile, has amassed an online following from countless video clips, posted by his staff, of his dressing down journalists, constituents, Democrats, academic researchers and the New Jersey Supreme Court. YouTube against Twitter: Which is more effective?

And finally, perhaps most importantly, the race represents a stark contrast in style. The mayor who meditates and quotes poetry versus the governor who…what's the opposite of meditation and poetry?

Booker is a chameleon, able to give any audience what it needs. To the Florida delegation at the Democratic convention, for example, he dropped “Jesus Loves You” and the Hebrew equivalent, “Baruch Hashem,” in the same sentence, bringing black women and Jewish grandmothers to their feet. Christie, on the other hand, keeps his finger on the trigger—choosing respect, as he always says, before love. While Christie is a married father of four and the fattest national politician since the dawn of television, Booker is a fit, single man often dubbed “America’s sexiest mayor.” His sex life is of more than a little interest in political circles, and his name was appropriated for an erotic novel, “Cory’s Salvation.” He is crushed on by 20-something female progressives across the country, as evidenced by the question recently asked about him on Jezebel: “Is it hot in here or is that just the rising temperature of a million vaginas?”

Booker, a vegetarian, often points to the contrast: “The governor is a Republican, I’m a Democrat. The governor likes steak, I like tofu. The governor is bold, I am bald. But we both recognize that we have common ground between us.”

When the Klieg lights are turned on at the must-see debates next fall, though, don't expect the candidates to tread on such common ground. Christie will look to smash what one Republican operative described as Booker's “glass jaw” by attacking him for being the same kind of tax-and-spend Democrat that brought New Jersey the highest property taxes in the nation. He will say that Booker followed the playbook of his tarnished ally, former governor and bank boss Jon Corzine, by failing to address Newark’s structural deficit and continued reliance on suburban taxes. Like Democrats in Congress who ignore the cost of entitlements, Christie will argue, Booker failed to do the “big things.”

Christie’s been to war before as a federal prosecutor, challenger to Corzine, and chief surrogate for Romney. Booker won his mayorship in a nasty race against a longtime state senator, but he's the relative newbie on the national scene. So he will first try to deflect Christie's shots with some of the platitudes he peddles on Twitter. Failing that, he will follow the advice of the focus groups and attempt to exploit Christie's gender gap by repeatedly bringing up the governor's opposition to abortion and gay marriage. He will frame these as civil rights matters, then go for the gut by questioning Christie's blue-collar-hero status—that the governor reduced a tax credit for the working poor, while vetoing taxes for millionaires.

Most of all, Booker will wait for the inevitable insult, some word that Christie lets slip that a few thousand independent voters think goes too far. This isn't a state where we want our leaders calling lawmakers “numbnuts” and Navy SEALs “idiots,” as Christie has done. Booker will wait for that gaffe, and then let it simmer. The message: Christie's tough talk, his Insult the Comic Dog routine, is growing too old, New Jersey. You've done bold; now is the time to go bald.

Matt Katz covers Christie for The Philadelphia Inquirer.