By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 27, 2007
A debate moment that might have quickly come and gone has erupted into the sharpest battle of the Democratic nominating contest, with Sen. Barack Obama yesterday comparing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's position on meeting with the leaders of hostile states to the adamant refusal of President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
"You'll have to ask Senator Clinton what differentiates her position from theirs," Obama challenged reporters on a conference call, stoking a fire ignited four days earlier when both were asked how they would approach countries such as North Korea and Iran if elected president.
Clinton waited a few hours, then shot back. "Whatever happened to the politics of hope?" she said in an interview with CNN, sarcastically referring to the Obama campaign theme.
By last night, senior aides to Clinton, who represents New York, and Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, were quarreling on television, their raised voices a measure of how competitive the 2008 presidential campaign has become with more than six months until the first votes are cast.
The tussle could be a turning point in the Democratic race, which has seen little direct engagement between the top two candidates until now, and highlights how the competition between them has been framed: Clinton's experience vs. Obama's freshness.
For Obama, it also marked a plunge into charge-countercharge politics after a promise to run "a different kind of campaign."
The fight began during the most recent Democratic debate, held Monday in Charleston, S.C. Asked whether they would agree to meet leaders from hostile countries in their first year in office, without preconditions, Obama said he would. Clinton said she would not.
Clinton advisers quickly cast Obama's answer as a rookie mistake, and in an interview with the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa, Clinton referred to Obama as "irresponsible and, frankly, naive."
But Clinton's direct criticism of Obama gave him an opening to shift the focus to their differences on Iraq. He called the newspaper and said what was "irresponsible and naive" was Clinton's 2002 vote for the resolution authorizing the Iraq war, a pointed reminder that he opposed the war from the start.
Clinton advisers believed the episode would end there. They thought they had scored at least a tactical victory that demonstrated not only Clinton's foreign policy experience but also the campaign's effectiveness at leaping on what was viewed as an opponent's mistake.
Instead, the issue continued to spiral, thanks in large part to Obama's decision to keep it going. Yesterday morning, during a conference call in which he received the endorsement of Rep. Paul W. Hodes (D-N.H.), Obama pressed the argument that his approach to dealing with hostile governments represents real change.
"Nobody expects that you would suddenly just sit down with them for coffee without having done the appropriate groundwork," he said. "But the question was: Would you meet them without preconditions? And part of the Bush doctrine has been to say no."
"This is getting kind of silly," Clinton told CNN. "You know, I've been called a lot of things in my life, but I've never been called George Bush or Dick Cheney, certainly."
Clinton advisers believe the exchange reinforced her greatest strength -- experience -- and drew a sharp contrast with Obama. Obama advisers see the argument as a metaphor for the larger rationale for his campaign.
"What Senator Obama represents is a fundamental change from current thinking in Washington," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said. "The distinction with Senator Clinton at the debate and this past week is an important part of the choice voters face."
Other candidates in the Democratic field jumped at the chance to distinguish themselves from both Clinton and Obama.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) deplored their argument as a "false debate," saying it "has become just another personal argument among politicians and that's lamentable given the stakes in this election.
"There is nothing new about this kind of politics and it certainly doesn't demonstrate a readiness to lead the nation when our reputation around the world is in tatters," Dodd said in a written statement.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, dismissed the Clinton-Obama clash as a "squabble," criticizing both candidates for giving Republicans an opening to characterize Democrats as unable to present a united front on national security issues.
"Petty arguments about foreign policy credentials will not get mine-resistant vehicles in the field any faster and will not get our troops home any sooner. Already Republicans are seeking to divide Democrats on the one issue that they have no credibility on after 4 1/2 years of President Bush's failed policy in Iraq," Biden said.