By Peter Szekely
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New Jersey voters went to the polls on Tuesday to choose their parties' nominees to succeed two-term Governor Chris Christie, a once-rising Republican star whose popularity has plummeted in recent years.
Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno leads a pack of five Republican candidates in Tuesday's primary election, while Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc executive who served as U.S. ambassador to Germany under former President Barack Obama, is the front-runner among six Democrats.
But the biggest challenge for candidates in either party may be drumming up enough interest to get voters to show up.
New Jersey is one of only two states holding gubernatorial elections this year. A recent poll by Stockton University found that one-third of voters in both parties were undecided.
"While we have a lot of candidates running, and quality candidates, it's not the kind of campaign that's grabbed peoples' attention," said Sharon Schulman, executive director of Stockton's Hughes Center for Public Policy, which conducted the poll.
Schulman speculated that many voters are "burned out" after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and noted that only 9 percent of Democrats and 18 percent of Republicans turned out in the 2013 primary. Scattered rain showers on Tuesday were unlikely to boost turnout in this year's primary.
In the May 25 Stockton poll, Guadagno led her strongest Republican rival, Assemblymen Jack Ciatterelli, 37 percent to 18 percent. Murphy led the Democratic pack with 34 percent, while former Clinton Administration Treasury Department official Jim Johnson had 10 percent and Assemblyman John Wisniewski had 9 percent.
With Christie frequently out on the stump for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, Guadagno has spent months as acting governor. But she also has had to distance herself from the unpopular Republican incumbent, and she has sparred with Ciatterelli over her plan to raise taxes on millionaires.
While Christie was re-elected with 60 percent of the vote in 2013, his recent approval rating dropped to 20 percent, following his frequent absences, the state's 11 credit-rating downgrades and transportation problems.
Christie also has been tarnished by the scandal in which two former aides were convicted for scheming to close down lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 to punish a mayor for failing to endorse Christie's re-election campaign.
On the Democratic side, Murphy has significantly out-spent his opponents. He has loaned $15 million to his own campaign and has been endorsed by former Vice President Joe Biden, as well as the state's Democratic Party.
(Reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Dan Grebler)