New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s visit to London, which began in the afterglow of a rival’s departure from the 2016 presidential race, ended in a huff.
Assured that fellow Republican Mitt Romney wouldn’t make a third bid as their party’s nominee, Christie began Feb. 1 as a red-and-white scarf-wearing Arsenal soccer fan and visited the next day with Prime Minister David Cameron. The good humor dissolved when his remarks that parents need "some measure of choice" on childhood immunizations drew condemnation back home.
By Tuesday, the tour built on a theme of "Trade, Politics, Soccer" had deflated. Christie left a meeting with Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne saying only: "We had a lot of fun." The governor snapped at reporters and his staff canceled media appearances, passing on an opportunity to show off presidential-level foreign-policy fluency.
Only last year, Christie, a 52-year-old in his second term, led the Republican Governors Association to record fundraising for November’s elections on a schedule that kept him out of state for about 140 days. The vaccine gaffe drew comparisons with Republican presidential candidate Romney’s comment in 2012 casting doubt on the success of the city’s upcoming summer Olympic games.
"There are some dangers with doing this, and Christie found one of them," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch, New Jersey. "Mitt Romney actually insulted London around the Olympics when he went. Christie put his foot in it with the vaccines."
Christie was meeting with U.K. political leaders and executives from the pharmaceutical and financial-services industries. He has said this visit, following trips to Mexico and Canada since September, was to cultivate a relationship between his state and its third-largest trading partner.
The governor has said he will disclose early this year whether he will run for president. Last month a political-action committee called Leadership Matters for America was formed to raise money for a potential Christie campaign. Advisers to Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, have a three-month goal to raise $100 million for a PAC to support a race of his own.
Christie’s London trip came as other Republican contenders are increasing their foreign travel and, with it, the perception that they are conversant with international matters.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who has attacked President Barack Obama in recent weeks over proposed normalization of Cuba relations, led a subcommittee hearing on the issue Tuesday. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a physician, traveled to Guatemala in August to perform eye surgeries. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican and potential 2016 candidate, is heading to London this month.
"There’s value when governors go overseas," said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University history and public affairs professor. "The fact is, we live in a global economy."
There are also pitfalls. Romney, in an NBC interview in July 2012, described reports of security problems with the summer games in London as "disconcerting," and said, "It’s hard to know just how well it will turn out." The comments from the former Massachusetts governor, who chaired the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, overshadowed meetings with top political leaders including Cameron.
For Christie, England didn’t seem to be a natural choice to talk jobs growth, Zelizer said.
"Why bypass a country like Germany, given the importance of pharmaceuticals and vaccines?" he said. "A lot of this now is about politics. The question will revolve around how much of this is in the best interest of the state, especially with economic issues, versus how much of this is about him raising his profile by going to one of the nation’s leading allies?"
The spotlight on Christie turned uncomfortably hot after Obama urged people to get vaccinated amid a measles outbreak that in January infected 102 people in 14 states.
On Monday, reporters asked Christie about his views on the matter. "Not every vaccine is created equal, and not every disease type is as great a public-health threat as others," he said.
Christie’s office later sought to clarify his remarks, saying in a statement that "the governor believes vaccines are an important public health protection and with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated."
Paul, in a CNBC interview, said immunization generally is a good idea, though he’d heard of cases of "children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines."
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, another potential Republican candidate, said vaccinations draw "a lot of fear- mongering out there."
"It is irresponsible for leaders to undermine the public’s confidence in vaccinations that have been tested and proven to protect public health," Jindal said in a statement.
Back in New Jersey, Murray, from the polling institute, said the London trip may have set back Christie in a strategic sense.
"It doesn’t make sense to be overseas while Jeb Bush is back here making phone calls trying to round up all the Romney donors," Murray said. "There’s a real danger to being out of the country."
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