By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Bickering broke out on Tuesday between the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over whether it would be appropriate to meet troublesome world leaders if either of them wins the November 2008 election. The two rival camps issued dueling memos in a sign of rising tensions between the two front-running Democrats who had sought to limit confrontations in the bid to take the White House from President George W. Bush’s Republicans.
Clinton, leader in the polls for her party’s nomination, and Obama, who has raised more money than Clinton, battled over who won a CNN/YouTube Democratic debate on Monday night in South Carolina. Clinton’s side sought to underscore her experience over Obama, who has served less than three years in the U.S. Senate, after Obama said at the debate he would be willing to meet leaders of Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela and Cuba during his first year in office.
“There is a clear difference between the two approaches these candidates are taking,” said a Clinton campaign memo issued by a spokesman. “Senator Obama has committed to presidential-level meetings with some of the world’s worst dictators without preconditions during his first year in office.” The memo was entitled “strength and experience.” It said Clinton, a second term senator from New York, is committed to vigorous diplomacy but “understands that it is a mistake to commit the power and prestige of America’s presidency years ahead of time by making such a blanket commitment.”
At the debate, Clinton had said “we are not going to have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and the presidents of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.” That is a change from what she said in April, the Obama campaign insisted in a memo it circulated to reporters entitled, “Obama wins debate and commander-in-chief test.” The memo included a comment from Clinton in April when she said, “I think it is a terrible mistake for our president to say he will not talk with bad people.”
“She reversed herself last night, disagreeing with Senator Obama’s assertion that we should use every tool at the president’s disposal to address problems before they become threats,” the Obama memo said. The Clinton campaign begged to differ, organizing a conference call for reporters with Madeleine Albright, who was secretary of state for President Bill Clinton, Hillary’s husband. “I would never have gotten out of the debate last night that there was any change in position,” Albright said. Obama’s campaign described the Illinois senator’s diplomacy as a “tough but smart approach,” and subtly tried to portray Clinton as an old guard leader, saying his approach “is exactly the kind of change and new thinking that excites voters about an Obama presidency.”