Buono kicked off her campaign against Gov. Chris Christie with a rally at New Brunswick High School that attracted some 500 party faithful. Her endorsers included many elected Democrats who until recently were in the market for someone else to run against the popular Christie.
"Don't believe the polls," said Rep. Frank Pallone, referring to early public opinion surveys that show Christie trouncing any candidate the Democrats put up, including Buono. Pallone was among the first to endorse Buono, and his support helped break the logjam that had held the party up for weeks.
The 59-year-old legislator said she was undeterred. She used her 20-minute speech to explain how she's been achieving goals others told her she couldn't accomplish throughout her career, such as becoming the first woman to chair the powerful Senate Budget Committee.
"I say that with the support of each and every one of you by my side, we will take back our state; we will show what happens when people rise together and fight for their future - and we will win," Buono told the enthusiastic crowd.
Political analyst Patrick Murray said the event successfully rallied Buono's base, but "if you are announcing to the world that you are ready to take on Chris Christie, the world isn't paying attention."
Murray, of Monmouth University, said the timing of the announcement - on a Saturday afternoon - didn't maximize exposure to the nightly news or the Internet, both of which see far greater traffic on weekdays. Buono also missed exposure on morning-drive radio.
Party leaders who spoke before Buono outlined what are expected to be themes of her campaign - unemployment that remains well above the national average, property taxes that are the highest in the country and Christie vetoes of bills funding women's health care and increasing the minimum wage.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who described some previous fights with Buono as "legendary," spoke highly of her tenacity on Saturday.
"If Barbara Buono was governor, we would have marriage equality in this state," he said, "the working poor wouldn't get jerked around" with a 5 percent cut in the Earned Income Tax Credit the administration implemented in 2011 because of budget constraints.
Buono is considered a significant underdog against Christie, whose popularity soared after Superstorm Sandy battered the state in late October. Some within her own party considered her such a weak candidate that they spent months recruiting someone they viewed as stronger. One by one, however, the other potential contenders bowed out, starting with Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 2014 rather than seek the Democratic nomination for governor.
Buono remained the only major Democrat in the race through the last week of January, when the party heavyweights finally gave their reluctant support.
Christie campaign adviser Mike DuHaime said Buono's candidacy represents a return to politics as usual in Trenton.
"Barbara Buono has been part of the problem in Trenton for nearly two decades," DuHaime said. "She has voted for billions in higher taxes, billions in new debt and billions in higher spending. We cannot afford to go back to the fiscally reckless old ways of Barbara Buono's Trenton."
Christie last week received the endorsement of Harrison's Democratic mayor and council. He previously picked up endorsements from the Port Authority PBA and the international laborers' union. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg will host a fundraiser for Christie in California this month.
Buono said a major theme of Christie's campaign - that he led the state through its worst natural disaster and is best positioned to lead it through rebuilding after Sandy - is flawed.
"A governor in this state not only has the responsibility to help families and businesses whose lives were turned upside down by the storm, but also those whose lives were in turmoil before the winds ever gusted or the ocean ever rose beyond our shores," she said.