New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is heading to Mexico on Wednesday, officially on a trade mission for his state. But the trip also serves as schooling for Christie, a potential 2016 presidential candidate with a lot of swagger but little foreign policy experience.
So with his state exporting $2 billion worth of goods to Mexico, and tens of thousands of New Jersey jobs relying on the relationship, Christie becomes the latest potential presidential contender to cross the border on official business — and in pursuit of international expertise and credibility.
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"If you're a national leader of the party and you go abroad and you meet other foreign leaders, you learn," Christie, who also is chairman of the Republican Governors Association, told reporters. "And that'll make you a better leader whether you run for anything else or whether you just continue to try to be an influential governor in our country regarding the national debates that come up."
Christie is just one of the Republicans trying to beef up his foreign policy credentials for a possible general election matchup against Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, a former secretary of state. The nation's role in international affairs is likely to be a key issue in the 2016 contest regardless of the candidates. After consecutive elections focused largely on the American economy, foreign affairs has returned to the forefront with the rise of the Islamic State militant group in Syria and Iraq and the Russian-backed rebellion in Ukraine.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul recently returned from Guatemala, where he performed eye surgeries with news cameras in tow. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum just came back from Israel; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is there now. Two days after Christie returns from Mexico, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is expected to head to China and Japan.
They are all following paths out of the country well-worn by presidential contenders, including former governors Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who cited travel overseas to boost their foreign policy credentials.
"Every governor who wants to be president has to go on an international trade mission to show their foreign policy bona fides," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
The trips, campaign veterans say, give potential candidates the chance to look presidential as they stand side-by-side with world leaders. On his first day in Mexico, Christie meets with President Enrique Pena Nieto.
For Christie, the trip also offers him a chance to build credibility with increasingly influential Latino voters. But more broadly, international experience could be critical in the 2016 presidential cycle, as the U.S. confronts conflicts in Israel, Syria, Ukraine and Russia. Clinton, who was secretary of state for four years, would have a substantial head start on foreign policy experience over any Republican now considering a presidential bid. She's dealt with foreign leaders for years; now it's Christie's turn.
"It begins to help the American people understand, 'Hey this person has the experience and the gravitas to be commander in chief,'" said Lanhee Chen, the top policy adviser to 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Christie, who like many governors has limited experience with foreign leaders, has a particular challenge when it comes to the delicate art of dealing with the nation's partners. He rose to national prominence as a brash straight-talker happy to publicly shout down New Jersey residents he disagreed with. On the international stage, he'll have to show he has the patience and self-control to deal with complicated, high-stakes conflicts.
His inexperience was on display during an appearance with Jewish donors this spring when he referred to Israel's West Bank and East Jerusalem as "occupied territories." He later apologized after drawing criticism from Israel's supporters in the U.S. who don't consider the region to be occupied.
Christie's trip this week is his second abroad as governor, after visiting Israel in 2012.
He will be joined by New Jersey business leaders for the three-day trip, which features sit-downs with Pena Nieto and other officials, meals and meetings with Mexican business leaders and a sojourn to Puebla, where he's scheduled to spend some time visiting a park and local school. There, he'll have the opportunity to show off his greatest political asset: his ability to interact with people.
Christie will be trailed step-by-step by the news media. He has no plans to try to speak Spanish while there, and he'll be traveling with a translator.
"I never have been really good at foreign languages. I tried in high school, I tried in college and just never had an aptitude for it," Christie told reporters before departing. "I think the worst thing in the world is when politicians try to fake it. You know, they've got a few things written in a foreign language in front of them, they say it and they sound stupid and everybody knows they don't really know what they're talking about it. And I'm not going to do that."