ESSINGTON, Pa. -- The race to replace New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is kicking into gear at a hotel next to Philadelphia's airport this week, with potential candidates sponsoring breakfasts for the state's Democratic convention delegation and political foes serving up trash talk alongside bagels and coffee.

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-West Deptford, N.J., addresses a gathering at the Statehouse over the future of Atlantic City Wednesday, May 4, 2016, in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who is considering running in next year's Democratic primary for governor, hosted an event Tuesday morning that the former Marine and Goldman Sachs banker said was focused on helping veterans find work after their service.

But after he spoke, it was a comment from New Jersey power broker George Norcross that underlined the stakes of this week's gatherings.

"He's a politically correct politician like his mentor, former Gov. Jim McGreevey," Norcross said of Fulop. "So he says what people want to hear. I mean it in a bad way because he tells people what they wanna hear and he patronizes people. ... (He) tells you whatever you wanna hear, tells you you're great looking, your wife's beautiful and the sun is shining and mom and apple pie."

For his part, Fulop said Norcross benefited financially from the public sector, but he declined to elaborate.

"What am I gonna say?" Fulop said. "I got nothing to say about him. He's not an elected official."

Norcross is considered the state's most powerful unelected political figure for his control over southern New Jersey Democratic politics. He is a close ally of Senate President Steve Sweeney, who also is a possible 2017 candidate and will host the delegation's Wednesday breakfast.

Sweeney has a huge blue banner that reads "Sweeney 2017" at the hotel where New Jersey Democrats are staying, despite not having announced his candidacy yet. However, Sweeney also is up for re-election for his Senate seat next year.

Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski, another possible contender, hosted a luncheon Tuesday, and said it would be more surprising at a national convention not to find political jockeying in a race for one of the most powerful governorships in the country.

"Every convention is a showcase of what will come," he said. "It's just the way it is."

New Jersey is a predominantly Democratic state, and the Democratic field in the governor's race has for months been jockeying behind the scenes for advantageous ballot positioning. Former Obama administration ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy announced his candidacy earlier this year along with a $10 million check from his own bank account to fuel his effort. He hosted the delegation breakfast Monday.

Cash has begun pouring in already, as well. Committees linked directly or indirectly with Fulop, Murphy, Sweeney and state Sen. Ray Lesniak, who is also considering a run for governor, have raised nearly $11 million and spent about $6 million, according to the Election Law Enforcement Commission.

Ordinarily, the competition would heat up at an annual convention for the state's towns and cities in Atlantic City after the November election, but this year is different with the national convention in Philadelphia, across the Delaware River from New Jersey. The convention provides four days of networking at breakfasts and after-hours cocktail events for every influential Democrat in the state. Now, the governor's race is out in the open.

As Jeff Tittel, a longtime New Jersey political observer and director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, put it: "The convention is the kickoff for the 2017 race for governor."

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

 

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