JERUSALEM (AP) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie kicked off his first official overseas trip Monday, meeting Israel's leader in a visit that may boost the rising Republican star's foreign policy credentials ahead of November's presidential election.
Christie, 49, is mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate in 2012 and a possible presidential candidate in 2016. He has brushed aside repeated appeals from top Republican donors about entering this year's presidential race.
Christie's Israel visit could raise speculation that he is positioning himself for a future run, and his trip will be watched by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Israel is a popular stop for American politicians on the rise seeking to bolster their international credibility while also appealing to Jewish constituents.
Speaking to reporters after visiting the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, located in the disputed Old City of Jerusalem, Christie played down any political significance of his trip, calling it a chance for him and his family to see the country.
"Anything I do fuels speculation for a future bid," Christie told The Associated Press, wearing a yarmulke with his name embroidered on it. "I am here because this is a place of enormous significance in the world."
But even Christie's brief visit to the Western Wall highlighted his growing popularity. Tourists stopped to shake his hand and pose for pictures. The rabbi of the holy site gave him a personal tour, saying that politicians who visit tend to win elections. Christie held a six-month-old baby and posed for a picture.
Earlier, Christie met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The governor said the two had a "really good and fruitful discussion" about regional issues, including Iran's disputed nuclear program and expanding trade between Israel and New Jersey.
"There is much in common between Israel and New Jersey. Your territory and ours are similar, as are the number of residents, though it's possible that the residents of New Jersey have better neighbors," Netanyahu said.
There was "never any question about where we were coming first," Christie told Netanyahu at the start of their meeting. Later Monday, the two men were to have a private dinner with their wives.
He will travel to Jordan later this week for talks with King Abdullah II.
Christie endorsed Mitt Romney's bid for president in October, ending months of speculation over whether he would run. He hasn't said yet whether he'll seek re-election as governor next year, leaving the door open to a vice presidential bid. He is consistently rumored to be on Romney's short list.
Christie's trip, billed "Jersey to Jerusalem," is a trade and diplomacy mission, according to his office. The meeting with Netanyahu was the first in a series of talks with senior Israeli business and political leaders, including President Shimon Peres on Tuesday.
Christie's spokeswoman, Maria Comella, rejected suggestions that Christie was laying the groundwork for a run for national office, either this year or in 2016. She said it's "a common tradition for New Jersey governors to go to Israel" because of the state's economic links to Israel. She also noted New Jersey's cultural ties with Israel because of the state's large Jewish population.
Christie is traveling with his family and a delegation of 13 business and religious leaders. While in Israel, he plans to tour a pharmaceutical facility with an interest in expanding to the U.S., participate in a business round-table and visit a school.
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Associated Press writer Angela Delli Santi in Trenton, New Jersey, contributed to this report.