Visiting London this week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has the advantage of arriving just after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s departure.
For both men, the stated mission of a visit to the European financial hub is to boost trade in their home states. The unstated goal: bolster their credentials ahead of possible 2016 Republican presidential bids.
Christie might have been better off if he’d stayed home. Coverage of his three-day trip turned negative after he said parents should have choice in immunizing their children. He also offered no clear foreign-policy message and engaged in testy exchanges with reporters.
Walker’s journey comes as he has shown polling momentum in states that host the earliest nomination contests. He stands to benefit by contrast to Christie if he can avoid similar pitfalls.
“When you are on foreign soil, every move is fraught with peril,” said Katie Packer Gage, deputy campaign manager for 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
The two governors are just the latest potential 2016 Republicans to make a U.K. visit. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal came in January. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida were all there last year.
Though such visits are often largely about photo opportunities, U.S. voters and foreign leaders also use them to take the measure of politicians, said Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University who studies foreign policy.
“If you can’t pass that test, then the American public won’t consider you a viable candidate,” he said. “They need to demonstrate that they can be sure-footed abroad when the attention is on them.”
Walker’s four-day trip may include just one public event, a speech Wednesday to the Chatham House think tank in London, which focuses on international affairs. The hour-long appearance is entitled “Building Global Partnerships for Stronger Local Economies.”
The second-term governor is also scheduled to visit business leaders and government officials, tour factories and host an alumni networking breakfast Wednesday for University of Wisconsin and Marquette University graduates.
“There are many reasons why companies in the U.K. should consider establishing or expanding their operations in Wisconsin, and we are going to make that case directly to the key decision-makers,” Walker, 47, said in a statement.
At $679 million in 2013, the U.K. is Wisconsin’s sixth- largest export market, behind Canada, Mexico, China, Japan and Germany, according to data from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.
Walker’s only previous trade mission was to China in 2013, according to an e-mail from Laurel Patrick, a spokeswoman. He’s also looking to book a trip to Israel this year, another common stop for presidential candidates.
In a Bloomberg Politics/Saint Anselm New Hampshire poll released during the weekend, Walker drew 12 percent of likely primary voters, behind former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. The poll, taken Jan. 31-Feb. 5 by Washington-based Purple Insights and with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points, surveyed 400 Republican primary voters almost exactly a year before the 2016 New Hampshire primary.
Christie’s stumbles last week went beyond his lack of foreign-policy experience. He got caught up in an emotional debate surrounding a measles outbreak in the U.S. He told reporters that parents should have “some measure of choice” in vaccination. When that remark was condemned back home, his staff released a statement saying that Christie believes “there is no question kids should be vaccinated.”
The New Jersey governor’s trip didn’t sink to the level of Romney’s during the last campaign. Romney offended the British by raising doubts about whether London was prepared to host the Olympics, which began the week he arrived. That prompted London’s mayor to mock Romney at a rally in front of tens of thousands of people.
Gage, who spent months helping plan that trip, said U.S. politicians need savvy locals to help them prepare for unwanted surprises.
“You almost have to anticipate the worst kinds of headlines you could get,” she said.
Mike Tate, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, mocked Walker’s travels as he alluded to Christie’s.
“This trip might be a taxpayer-funded campaign to bolster his credibility on foreign policy, but the governor is still accountable for the mess he’s created in Wisconsin,” Tate said in a statement. “Unfortunately for Walker, overseas travel hasn’t been too kind to scandal-plagued Republican governors running for president.”
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