WASHINGTON — Barack Obama’s offer to meet without precondition with leaders of renegade nations such as Cuba, North Korea and Iran touched off a war of words, with rival Hillary Rodham Clinton calling him naive and Obama linking her to President Bush’s diplomacy.
Older politicians in both parties questioned the wisdom of such a course, while Obama’s supporters characterized it as a repudiation of Bush policies of refusing to engage with certain adversaries.
It triggered a round of competing memos and statements Tuesday between the chief Democratic presidential rivals. Obama’s team portrayed it as a bold stroke; Clinton supporters saw it as a gaffe that underscored the freshman senator’s lack of foreign policy experience.
“I thought that was irresponsible and frankly naive,” Clinton was quoted in an interview with the Quad-City Times that was posted on the Iowa newspaper’s Web site on Tuesday.
In response, Obama told the newspaper that her stand puts her in line with the Bush administration.
Both parties were weighing the potential political fallout, especially in Florida, an early primary state, a pivotal general election state — and where Cuban President Fidel Castro remains particularly unpopular.
“Anything that looks like pandering to dictators is bad politics in South Florida,” said Republican state Rep. David Rivera of Miami. He predicted Obama’s comments would come back to haunt him, particularly if he becomes the Democratic nominee.
The Republican National Committee on Tuesday circulated stories calling attention to and ridiculing Obama’s remarks.
In Monday’s debate from Charleston, S.C., Obama was asked by a questioner via YouTube if he would be willing to meet — without precondition — in the first year of his presidency with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea.
“I would,” he responded.
Clinton said she would not. “I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes,” she said. Clinton said she would first use envoys to test the waters.
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Video: Clinton momentum? The day after the debate, the Clinton campaign made former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a Clinton supporter, available to reporters to further challenge Obama’s response.
“It’s a step-by-step process. It’s not just some event,” Albright said of such head-of-state meetings.
“I would think that without having done the diplomatic spadework, it would not really prove anything,” Albright said.
Obama: 'Never fear'
The Obama campaign, meanwhile, circulated a memo by Obama spokesman Bill Burton saying Obama’s response to the question had played well with focus groups and that Clinton had changed her position on the subject — a claim her campaign denied.
Anthony Lake, an Obama foreign policy adviser who was national security adviser early in President Clinton’s administration, defended Obama’s statements.
“A great nation and its president should never fear negotiating with anyone and Senator Obama rightly said he would be willing to do so — just as Richard Nixon did with China and Ronald Reagan with the Soviet Union,” Lake said.
He said Obama was not trying to dictate the “shape of specific negotiations” and those would “depend on how best to conduct them” at the time.
Lake said he recognized Obama’s comments had stirred up a political hornet’s nest, particularly in Florida. But, he said, it would subside. “In two years, who knows who’s going to be ruling Cuba,” Lake said.
'A seasoned answer'
In February, Clinton had said: “You don’t refuse to talk to bad people. I think life is filled with uncomfortable situations where you have to deal with people you might not like. I’m sort of an expert on that. I have consistently urged the president to talk to Iran and talk to Syria. I think it’s a sign of strength, not weakness.”
Obama’s camp also attempted to shift attention to Clinton’s vote authorizing the Iraq war in October 2002 at a time when Obama, then a state lawmaker, had voiced opposition.
Joe Garcia, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Democrats and former director of the Cuban National Foundation, said he’ll give Obama the benefit of the doubt.
“Obviously, Hillary’s answer was a seasoned answer within the realm of what we’re doing. But I don’t think Obama was intending to say we want to give legitimacy to dictatorships,” said Garcia, who said he was not affiliated with any of the candidates. Obama speaks to the Miami-Dade Democrats at an Aug. 25 dinner.
GOP also draws ire
Other 2008 candidates have stumbled on Cuban-American politics.
In March, Republican Mitt Romney told South Florida Republicans that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a persistent U.S. critic, “has tried to steal an inspiring phrase — ’Patria o muerte, venceremos.”’ But, added Romney, “It does not belong to him. It belongs to a free Cuba.”
In truth, the phrase does not belong to free Cubans. It has been a trademark speech ending for Castro, their most despised opponent.
Also, prospective GOP candidate Fred Thompson drew unwelcome attention last month when he appeared to suggest that illegal Cuban immigrants posed a terrorist threat. He later said people were trying to twist his words, and that he was referring to Cuban spies, not immigrants.
Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institution think tank, said he thought Obama’s comments did show “a lack of experience” but were probably not fatal to his prospects. Furthemore, said Mann, “there is a growing group of younger Cuban-Americans and others” who want more engagement with Cuba.
Meanwhile, rival John Edwards tried to steer clear of the Clinton-Obama flap during a campaign stop in South Carolina but did say he fears a presidential-level meeting with rogue leaders could be used to denigrate the United States.
“I would not commit myself on the front end openly to meet with (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Il, (Venezuelan President) Hugo Chavez,” Edwards told reporters in McClellanville, S.C. “I think there’s a real potential that would be used as a propaganda tool.”
NBC News' Domenico Montanaro contributed to this report.