Guadagno, Hoping to Succeed Christie, Tries to Escape His Shadow

It was midway through the first debate when Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno sensed an opening. Her opponent, Philip D. Murphy, had mounted attack after attack focused on the record of Gov. Chris Christie, tying Ms. Guadagno to the deeply unpopular governor of New Jersey.

“The inconvenient truth for Phil is that Chris Christie is not on the ballot in November,” she said. “I am.”

Applause filled the debate hall. Ms. Guadagno, a Republican vying to succeed Mr. Christie, smiled. But Mr. Murphy, a Democrat, continued unfazed. “Christie-Guadagno” was a phrase he continued to utter, one name rarely spoken without the other.

For the past seven and a half years, Ms. Guadagno has been the second in command to the embattled governor. It was a position that a few years ago seemed to offer a clear path to the Statehouse for Ms. Guadagno, but that now has devolved into a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

Throughout the campaign, she has had to chart a delicate course: explaining to voters her record and achievements serving under Mr. Christie, while at the same time distancing herself from the governor, whose approval rating has plunged to the midteens.

The balancing act has proved challenging. For years, she was his loyal, silent lieutenant. She was never tarnished by the biggest scandal to hit the Christie administration, the closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge as a means of political retribution. At the same time, she has rarely challenged the governor publicly on other contentious issues, such as the cancellation of a rail tunnel under the Hudson River or the more than 500 days Mr. Christie spent out of state while campaigning for president

Ms. Guadagno, 58, was picked by Mr. Christie from relative political obscurity to be the first lieutenant governor in the state’s history (the position was created by a referendum approved in 2005). Ms. Guadagno, a career federal prosecutor, was born in Iowa and moved to New Jersey in 1991; the only elected experience she brought to Trenton was two years as the sheriff of Monmouth County.

Early in her term as lieutenant governor, she was a willing No. 2, often in lock step with Mr. Christie’s views and sometimes with his humor.

At an event celebrating the Christie-Guadagno election victory in 2009, Jon Bramnick, a Republican state Assemblyman who had also been in the running for the lieutenant governor position, turned to Ms. Guadagno to congratulate her.

“You came in fourth,” she told Mr. Bramnick, meaning he was last among the four people Mr. Christie had considered for his running mate.

“Really?” he said.

“I’m just kidding,” she replied, Mr. Bramnick recalled in an interview. “The governor told me to say that.”

The position of lieutenant governor was created to ensure a smooth transition of state leadership when the elected governor is traveling, is removed from office, or is otherwise unable to fulfill the duties. Beyond that, it was largely up to Mr. Christie and his aides to decide what, exactly, Ms. Guadagno’s day-to-day role would be in the administration.

The state Constitution requires that the lieutenant governor hold a cabinet or agency-level position, so Mr. Christie first made Ms. Guadagno secretary of state, in charge of overseeing elections, cultural funding and tourism. Then Mr. Christie put her in charge of reaching out to small businesses and reviewing regulations.

They were important responsibilities, but they gave her little visibility, and any major initiatives would be headlined by Mr. Christie.

Nonetheless, Ms. Guadagno eagerly took up leadership of a committee of legislators and state officials who were asked to review rules and regulations affecting business.

Ms. Guadagno traveled all over the state, showing up for even the smallest ribbon-cutting ceremonies and becoming well known among business leaders.

And her accessibility — she often wrote her personal cellphone number on the back of the business cards she gave out — was often lauded.

But her public recognition was limited. At major events, Mr. Christie always took center stage, with Ms. Guadagno standing silently off to the side. As Mr. Christie’s national star quickly rose and he became a regular guest on cable news programs, Ms. Guadagno remained, as the local media often portrayed her, a senior state official largely unknown to many New Jersey residents.

“Lt. Gov. Guadagno is seen, but seldom heard, in public,” The Record newspaper wrote in 2010. Four years later, The Record suggested that not much had changed: “After years in politics, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno remains a mystery.”

At times, her lack of name recognition combined with her ambition for higher office became something of a joke, and Ms. Guadagno played along with good-natured humor. At the annual New Jersey Legislative Correspondents’ Club dinner in 2013, she performed in a sketch with Mr. Christie in which her character was loosely based on “Veep,” the H.B.O. comedy series about a bumbling vice president who constantly craves the spotlight and the president’s approval.

But privately, after years in the governor’s shadow, she began to chafe at her near invisibility, according to former officials in the Christie administration, and her formerly strong relationship with the governor began to fray.

One source of tension erupted at the end of 2010. Ms. Guadagno went on a long-scheduled vacation to Mexico with her family, while Mr. Christie took his family to Disney World. With both officials out of state, Stephen M. Sweeney, the senate president and a Democrat, presided as acting governor during a severe snowstorm.

Mr. Christie and Ms. Guadagno were widely criticized for both being out of state at the same time, given that the post of lieutenant governor had been created specifically to preside when the governor was away. Mr. Christie was furious, and imposed a rule requiring that any vacation Ms. Guadagno wanted to take had to be vetted by a shared scheduling office. The policy was the first crack in a relationship that would begin to sour, according to the former members of the Christie administration, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private matters.

Though her profile was low, Ms. Guadagno did not entirely escape controversy.

During a Senate budget committee hearing in 2011, Ms. Guadagno got into a heated exchange with lawmakers over state contracts. Shouts and interruptions mixed with confusion and exasperation.

“It was a very, very bizarre hearing,” Paul Sarlo, a Democratic state senator who headed the committee, said when it was over. The squabbling over cultural funding prompted a harsh editorial in The Star Ledger newspaper, calling Ms. Guadagno’s performance “a sloppy power grab, nothing else.”

In 2014, when the Christie administration became engulfed in the George Washington Bridge scandal, accused of closing access lanes to punish the mayor of Ft. Lee, N.J., the mayor of Hoboken accused Ms. Guadagno of threatening to withhold funds meant to help the city recover from Hurricane Sandy if she did not approve a project in the city.

The allegation caught the attention of the federal prosecutors investigating the bridge scandal. But Ms. Guadagno and two aides were ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing by federal prosecutors. And Ms. Guadagno was never implicated in the bridge investigation.

During another defining moment of the Christie administration — Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and its aftermath — Ms. Guadagno, who lives in Monmouth County, an oceanside stretch ravaged by the storm, became key to the administration’s work.

In her role as secretary of state, she was in charge of making sure voters could cast ballots in the presidential election while so much of the state was in tatters from the storm. She moved her family into a hotel near Trenton and logged 18-hour work days.

She moved swiftly, allowing people who were displaced by the storm to vote by mail or by fax, and voter turnout wound up being relatively comparable to the 2008 election.

Throughout her tenure, the constant stress of playing second fiddle to Mr. Christie, combined with the job’s travel demands, could make working in the lieutenant governor’s office difficult. She churned through five chiefs of staff in less than eight years.

Eventually, as she launched her own campaign for governor, Ms. Guadagno publicly broke with Mr. Christie over the administration’s proposal to raise the gasoline tax.

At the 2016 Correspondents’ Club dinner, Ms. Guadagno opened the festivities with a song. She took the stage, arched one pump behind her, and kicked.

A photo of Mr. Christie on an easel toppled over, and Diana Ross’s voice boomed from loudspeakers as the room filled with laugher.

“I’m coming out,” Ms. Guadagno sang along, one arm waved above her head. “I want the world to know.”

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