updated 7/28/2007 4:50:55 PM ET 2007-07-28T20:50:55

Democrat Barack Obama cast himself Saturday as the leader the United States needs for it to stand up to and engage renegade nations such as North Korea.

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“We need a president who’ll have the strength and courage to go toe to toe with the leaders of rogue nations, because that’s what it takes to protect our security,” the Illinois senator told Democrats at a rally. “That’s what I’ll do as your next commander in chief.”

Obama and rival Hillary Rodham Clinton have had a running argument since clashing in last week’s debate over how far the United States should be willing to go in its diplomacy with countries such as Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea.

After a viewer asked the candidates if they would be willing to meet with those nations’ leaders, Obama said it was a disgrace that the U.S. won’t hold talks with them. For role models, he invoked late presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan for their Cold War diplomacy.

Clinton, who has criticized the Bush administration for not engaging Iran and Syria directly, said she would not meet in the first year of her presidency with the leaders of those five nations, before knowing what their intentions were. After the debate, Clinton called Obama naive.

On Saturday, Obama said he would be willing to meet — without conditions — in the first year of his presidency with the leaders of those nations, contrary to ”the chattering class” in the nation’s capital who “want to focus, like they always do, on who’s up and who’s down.”

‘We’ve got nothing to fear ...’
Defending his position, Obama cited Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address saying that the nation must never negotiate out of fear, but also never fear to negotiate.

“I was called irresponsible and naive because I believe that there is nobody we can’t talk to,” said Obama, drawing loud cheers. “We’ve got nothing to fear as long as know who we are and what we stand for and our values.”

Obama said his campaign was about ”turning the page on a failed foreign policy and having the strength to engage our adversaries and protect American interests around the globe.”

When dealing with renegade nations, Obama said, the Bush administration has mistakenly been led by a ”guiding diplomatic principle” that it can punish a nation by refusing to talk.

“I am confident we can go before the world and talk to the worst dictators and tell them we don’t believe in your values, we don’t believe in your human rights violations, we don’t believe in you exporting terrorism, but if you are willing to work with us in a better direction then we’re willing to talk,” Obama said. “We shouldn’t be afraid.”

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