PUEBLA, Mexico (AP) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was greeted like a rock star on the final day of his trade mission to Mexico. But the three-day trip is unlikely to change perceptions that the Republican governor needs to establish his foreign policy credentials before he jumps into a potential presidential run.
Christie on Friday left behind the high-end hotels and government offices that had dominated the first two days of his trip and headed east to the city of Puebla. About 40 percent of first- and second-generation Mexican-Americans who live in New Jersey, some 200,000 people, trace their roots to Puebla.
The possible 2016 Republican presidential hopeful largely avoided wading into heated policy issues during his three-day trip. Aside from a policy speech on the importance of the North American relationship and new investments in energy, he spent the bulk of his time in Mexico touting New Jersey businesses and new ways the country and state could work together.
The Puebla trip was planned partially to give Christie a chance to interact more informally with locals and connect with Mexican culture. And the potential 2016 hopeful certainly got his fill.
Christie received a celebrity's welcome at a local school, where more than 2,000 students waving American, Mexican and New Jersey flags packed the bleachers of an outdoor field.
Kindergarteners lined the governor's path to the school, and he greeted the students as he passed, crouching down to shake their hands, sharing fist bumps and gently touching their shoulders and heads.
As Christie took his place in a special box above the field, the children broke into excited shrieks worthy of a teen heart throb. Dozens of older students then treated him to a lengthy performance that included historical reenactments, dances, a marching band that sported sombreros and cheerleaders who performed to American artists like Bruno Mars.
Christie, who has seemed far more reserved on the trip than his usual brash persona, said he was overwhelmed by the reception.
"It seemed like an endless line of one child who was more adorable than the next. So just amazing. And the enthusiasm of the kids and of the adults was really, really wonderful," he said, crediting the reaction to the state's governor, Rafael Moreno Valle, who served as Christie's host throughout the day. "He vouched for me. So they like me because they love him."
Moreno Valle said the teachers, students and parents who had gathered didn't know Christie's name before his visit, but they have many friends and family members who live in the U.S.
"You can see how interested people are — kids and the parents — in having a good relationship with the United States and with New Jersey because they know that a lot of family members or people they know have migrated to the U.S., and they appreciate a U.S. governor taking the time to come here and to visit us," he said.
Christie's trip has had many of the trappings of a campaign, with a traveling press corps, motorcades and jam-packed schedule. At a news conference in a park near the governor's residence overlooking the city of Puebla, Christie downplayed the similarities.
"Well, first I want to assure the governor I'm not running for anything in Mexico. So campaigning here would be kind of foolish, as I'm not going to put myself on the ballot," he said, before adding that he's felt more comfortable with the pace of the trip than most of his younger staff.
Christie was careful to avoid contentious issues publicly during his stay and seemed to strike a fast friendship with Moreno Valle. He began his day with a breakfast at the governor's residence complex and said he'd already invited Moreno Valle to come to New Jersey for a joint visit to the City of Passaic, where many immigrants from Puebla live.
Follow Jill Colvin on Twitter at https://twitter.com/colvinj
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