In his visit to South Florida last week, John McCain questioned Barack Obama's foreign-policy credentials, appealing to Cuban-American and Jewish voters by invoking fears of their enemies.
Obama has said he is willing to meet with such nefarious foreign leaders such as Raúl Castro, who took over the leadership of Cuba from his ailing brother, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian leader who denies the Holocaust happened.
Where the Democratic front-runner sees opportunities to inspire democracy and defuse military threats, the Republican nominee-in-waiting warns of gambles that would compromise the security of the United States and its allies. Democrat Hillary Clinton also has assailed Obama's position as ``naive.''
But oversimplified political posturing ignores the nuanced lessons of American history. Former President Richard Nixon met with Mao Zedong at a time when China was viewed as one of America's biggest enemies. McCain himself helped establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam, a communist dictatorship that killed 58,000 Americans in wartime.
On the other hand, former President Jimmy Carter's overtures to Fidel Castro were cut short by the Mariel boatlift that sent 125,000 refugees to Miami.
Though the economy currently stands at the forefront of the 2008 presidential race, foreign policy debates pitting diplomacy against isolationism also may shape the campaign. The contrast will be particularly striking if the Democratic nominee is Obama, who leads Clinton by more than 100 convention delegates.
McCain already is trying to exploit Obama's perceived vulnerabilities with hard-line Cuban and Jewish voters, railing against the Castro regime at a Coral Gables fundraiser and rallying donors at a ''pro-Israel'' reception in Palm Beach County last week.
''He also mentioned Joe Lieberman a couple of times and got huge ovations,'' said Palm Beach Republican Party chairman Sid Dinerstein, referring to the Jewish senator and former Democratic vice presidential nominee, now an independent, who supports McCain.
The Jewish community makes up about 10 percent of the Florida electorate, while Cuban Americans represent about 7 percent -- substantial chunks of voters who can swing a fence-sitting state, said Miami-based pollster Sergio Bendixen. For decades, candidates have used full-throated calls for a democratic Cuba and a secure Israel to try to lock down these groups.
''These are important building blocks to victory in Florida, and they have tended to vote as a bloc,'' said Bendixen, who is advising Clinton. 'Candidates are told you yell, `Cuba libre!' and that's how you win. They haven't noticed that the electorate has changed, and voters want to hear about healthcare, too.''
McCain did focus on healthcare in his trip last week to South Florida, but also attacked Obama for failing to condemn Carter's recent meeting with Hamas leaders.
Both Clinton and Obama said they disagreed with the former president and would only meet with the group if it renounced terrorism against Israel.
Obama set himself apart at a nationally televised debate last July. He was asked if he would talk to the anti-American leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea without setting make-it-or-break-it ground rules.
''I would,'' Obama said. ```And the reason is this: that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration -- is ridiculous.''
He added: ``I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them.''
Though his answer prompted McCain and Clinton to portray Obama as inexperienced, his foreign policy finds support in the Iraq Study Group, a panel of establishment Democrats and Republicans that recommended engaging Iran and Syria without ``preconditions.''
''That shows, to my way of thinking, that the mainstream of foreign policy is that you do better to open dialogue with your enemies than to refuse to speak to them until they fulfill an impossible set of preconditions,'' said University of Miami international studies professor Ambler Moss, an Obama supporter who served as the former ambassador to Panama under presidents Carter and Reagan.
``Cuba hasn't been a threat to the U.S. since the fall of the Soviet Union.''
Obama's campaign co-chairman in Florida is U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Boca Raton, one of Israel's most outspoken allies in Congress. He argues that the current U.S. policy toward Iran has only pushed it further toward menacing Israel with nuclear weapons and financing international terror.
''The question I would pose to people who care deeply about Israel security as I and Senator Obama do is: Can we sit on our hands and continue the same failed policy?'' Wexler said. ``Senator Obama is showing political courage by standing up and making this case.''
What Wexler sees as strength, McCain calls naiveté.
''If we sit down with these people, that enhances their prestige, whether it's the president of Iran who denies the Holocaust and wants to wipe Israel off the map, or Raúl Castro, one of the world's longest-running oppressors,'' he said in an interview with The Miami Herald last week.
``If they want to talk, they have to make fundamental changes.''
Clinton has made similar remarks and used increasingly aggressive language toward Iran. Asked how the United States would respond to an attack on Israel, she said recently, ``We would be able to totally obliterate them.''
Randy Scheunemann, the McCain campaign's director of foreign policy, said the best way to force Iran's hand is through toughening economic sanctions with European allies. Talking to the Cuban government, he said, would undermine the U.S. goal of nudging the island toward democracy.
Vietnam was a special case, Scheunemann said, and it was no longer a threat to the region.
''What Obama seems to advocate is a diplomacy of sitting down to talk and hoping things are going to work out,'' he said. ``Just because we haven't achieved immediate results isn't a reason to turn around and give our enemies what they want.''