WASHINGTON — Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., has seized on Sen. Barack Obama's debate assertion that he'd meet with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as evidence that her top rival isn't ready for the diplomatic stage.
In one of the sharpest exchanges of the Democratic primary campaign to date, the two camps fired off dueling memos Tuesday, with Obama's campaign suggesting that Clinton had backtracked and the Illinois senator was offering a distinct departure from the Bush administration's refusal to engage in diplomacy.
Clinton, in an Iowa newspaper interview, called Obama's suggestion of a dialogue with a dictator "irresponsible and frankly naive."
Her campaign also dispatched former Clinton Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who said in a conference call that the New York senator had struck the proper diplomatic tone, ruling out engagement until lower-level talks had been completed.
"Without having done the diplomatic spade work it would not really prove anything," Albright said.
The back and forth came as front-runner Clinton seeks to position herself as best experienced to assume the presidential helm and Obama looks to present himself as a fresh alternative.
"What she's somehow maintaining is my statement could be construed as not having asked what the meeting was about," Obama told Iowa's Quad City Times. "I didn't say these guys were going to come over for a cup of coffee some afternoon."
The Clinton campaign sought to portray Obama's remarks as foolhardy, with a campaign memo that suggested he'd "committed to presidential-level meetings with some of the world's worst dictators without precondition during his first year in office."
Obama's campaign portrayed his words as bold at a time when the U.S. image has been tarnished by the war in Iraq. He countered with a statement from Anthony Lake, former President Clinton's national security adviser, who said a "great nation and its president should never fear negotiating with anyone."
"Senator Obama rightly said he would be willing to do so, as Richard Nixon did with China and Ronald Reagan did with the Soviet Union," Lake said. "After seven years of arrogant refusal to get into direct bargaining with others, surely it's time for some fresh thinking."
Talk of sitting down with Castro is heresy in Miami, where a large Cuban-American exile community remains bitter toward Castro and his rule. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, angling for a slice of the powerful Cuban-American vote after he fumbled a trademark Castro phrase several months ago, joined the fray, suggesting that Obama and former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., had "demonstrated a dangerous naivete."
At the debate Monday, Edwards said "yes" when he was asked whether he'd meet with several such leaders within his first year, but he went on to say, "Senator Clinton is right, though."
Susana Betancourt, 38, a board member and former president of the Miami-Dade Democratic Hispanic Caucus, said she thought the answers were in tune with the sentiments of a younger generation of Cuban-Americans, who think that the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba has accomplished little. But she acknowledged that Clinton's answer was more politically savvy and probably would be better received in Miami.
(Corral, of The Miami Herald, reported from Miami.)