The early death of her father, the fire in her first apartment, the stint on food stamps, and the call to the welfare office are staples of Buono's stump speech - so much so she is sometimes apologetic when repeating these stories.
There were other hardships she rarely speaks about, including a strained relationship with her mother, five years as a single mother to her four children, and her second husband's cancer diagnosis.
Time and again, Buono, a 60-year-old state senator from Middlesex County, has been forced to stand alone. She has sought to sell that underdog persona to the public since her first days on the campaign trail 10 months ago.
Now, in the waning two weeks before Election Day, she's finally starting to act like that feisty underdog. Unfortunately for her, though, she's channeling an anger against Christie that may not exist in the larger electorate.
"A lot of people might have said, 'Oh, jeez, I don't have the support of my party, the party apparatus, I better back out,' " said Buono's husband, physician Martin Gizzi.
She's "really fierce - I mean that quite genuinely - and knows how to take care of herself," he said. "She doesn't see being on her own as a losing position."
That independence was bred early on.
Born in Newark to a union butcher and substitute teacher, Buono grew up a tomboy, the youngest of three girls in a second-floor apartment in Nutley. She remembers her parents' "troubled marriage," with lots of arguing.
While Christie speaks about his mother as the parent who defines his political personality, Buono talks about her father.
As he tells it, Christie built his tell-it-like-it-is persona through Mom, who was Sicilian. As she tells it, Buono learned the art of argument through Dad, who was from Naples.
Buono's father baited her on issues such as women's lib. "And I would debate," she remembered. "We had a lot of healthy debate at the dinner table."
Buono's father died when she was 19, and her mother seemed to emotionally check out, as she recalls it. "It was pretty painful losing my mother and my father at the same time," she said.
Buono lived off her father's Social Security and went to Montclair State College on financial assistance. After graduating, she lived on friends' couches, then with a sister, before landing an apartment.
As she was struggling to find a job, the furnace in her apartment exploded, causing a fire. "I didn't have a place to live, I didn't have a job," Buono said. She went on food stamps and called the welfare office for help.
"It was demeaning, and it was scary," she said. "That year, 1976, defined who I am." It underscored the proud liberal politician she became - advocating for a higher minimum wage, an increase in taxes on millionaires, and state-funded preschool for the poor.
"I have an empathy when I see people who are suffering," she said. "I feel it in a very visceral way."
Buono was able to get herself through college and then Rutgers-Camden Law School. She became a public defender, married, and ran for Metuchen Borough Council in 1991 on an all-female ticket that previewed the one she now leads with running mate Milly Silva.
Buono lost that first race but decided to run again the next year to teach her children a "life lesson": If you don't first succeed, try again.
She won. "And I really liked it."
Buono's father's death prompted her to rebuild as large a family as possible: She had four children in eight years.
But her marriage broke up. Buono had attended synagogue with her Jewish ex-husband; now, she began going to the largely black New Hope Baptist Church, where her friend the Rev. Ronald Owens is the preacher. "She suffered terribly" during that time, Owens said.
Buono became a single mother as her political trajectory continued, taking her to the state Assembly in 1994 and state Senate in 2001. But when she tried to climb the leadership ladder within the party, she said, she faced resistance. "You as a woman, you're not part of the old boys' club," Buono said.
The struggle of female politicians is a campaign theme. At a September event in a Moorestown living room for the National Organization for Women, chapter president Jennifer Armiger called Buono, the state's first female Democratic nominee for governor, "courageous to the core."
"But we all are," Buono interjected. "We all are."
Buono was at ease in front of the mostly female audience, quoting onetime presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm and saying feminism "has been in my bones for a long time."
"When people are saying, 'Why are you running?' I say, 'How can I not run? Look at the shape our state is in,' " Buono said to nods in the crowd. The state at large, though, disagrees: Satisfaction with the quality of life has gone up during the Christie years, polls show.
Buono appealed to the NOW supporters for money. "I've done a lot on my own in my life," she said, "but I can't do this."
Buono's split with the Democratic Party establishment has meant dreadfully little financial support. And though she frames that as having sexist undertones, there are ideological fissures, too.
Buono held the No. 2 leadership position in the Senate until she split from Democratic leaders in 2011 over their deal with Christie to cut public employee benefits. Now, prominent Democrats are supporting Christie.
"That people have been so overt in their opposition is staggering," Buono said. "It will make the history books."
But she thinks back to when she was 19, when she was on her own and "had to sink or swim."
"That's why I can do this," she said.
She has support, of course. At her side through this political adventure is her second husband, whom her mother had indirectly led her to.
When her mother had a stroke, she received such poor medical treatment in Florida that Buono decided to write legislation to create stroke centers in New Jersey. But first, she needed an expert in the field to help her write the bill.
"I was told there was an assemblywoman coming who wanted to talk about stroke care - I wasn't even sure what an assemblywoman was," Gizzi remembered. "And this woman, she just controlled the room."
Buono and Gizzi, a father of two, were married in 2002 - two years before the bill they wrote together was finally signed into law.
Both shared custody with their exes, so often six children would be living together under their roof. "It was awesome," Buono fondly remembers.
Last year, Gizzi was diagnosed with neck cancer, and he credits Buono for pushing to get him treatment quickly. He is now healthy; he sat in the front row at last week's debate.
One of Buono's children has played a prominent role on the campaign trail. Tessa, who is gay, has filmed a Web ad highlighting Christie's opposition to same-sex marriage. Though the ad has gotten the campaign widespread attention, little else has. Christie has enormous leads in the polls and in fund-raising, and is expected to win on Nov. 5.
Paradoxically, as the governor's chair has seemed farther out of reach, Buono has grown more effective on the campaign trail. Her second debate performance last week was widely perceived as stronger than her first, and her speeches are now more reflective of her personality.
She said that for months she had heard too much advice. So at last week's debate, she went at it on her own - a position from which she knows how to fight.
"I just decided to be me," she said.
Past Political Experience: Metuchen Borough Council, elected 1992; State Assembly, elected 1994; State Senate; elected 2001