Clinton, Obama Campaigns Clash Over Debate Exchange on Presidential Diplomacy

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - The rival camps of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama clashed Tuesday over the meaning of Obama's claim in a Democratic presidential debate that he'd be willing to meet with leaders of rogue nations such as Cuba, North Korea and Iran.

Clinton supporters characterized it as a gaffe that underscored the freshman senator's lack of foreign-policy savvy while Obama's team claimed his response displayed judgment and a repudiation of President Bush's diplomacy.

In a memo from Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton, the campaign contended that Obama's comments played well with focus groups that watched the debate and "showed his willingness to lead and ask tough questions on matters of war."

Obama "offered a dramatic change from the Bush administration's eight-year refusal to protect our security interests by using every tool of American power available - including diplomacy.

Clinton's campaign, meanwhile, portrayed Obama's response as naive - and scheduled a conference call for reporters with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to reinforce the contention.

In Tuesday's two-hour debate from Charleston, S.C., Obama was asked if he would be willing to meet - without precondition - in the first year of his presidency with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea.

"I would," he responded.

Clinton said she would not.

"I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes," she said. Her campaign quickly posted video of her answer online, trying to show she has a different understanding of foreign policy than her chief rival.

Obama adviser David Axelrod said on Tuesday that Obama would not just meet blindly with such leaders but only after diplomatic spadework had been accomplished.

Americans "are sick of the Bush diplomacy and aren't interested in continuing it," said Axelrod.

The Obama campaign was quick to point to an April 23 quote from Clinton in which she said, "I think it's a terrible mistake for our president to say he won't talk to bad people."

Video questions submitted to the hip Web site YouTube shook up the usual campaign debate Monday night. The questions, most of them coming from young people, were blunt and earnest, yet sometimes bizarre.

They included lesbians asking about gay marriage, two unrelated parents with sons in Iraq asking about the war, and a snowman asking about global warming.

"He needs help," Delaware Sen. Joe Biden said after watching a video of a man holding an automatic weapon and asking how the candidates would protect his "baby." "I don't know if he's mentally qualified to own that gun."

The revelations that the questions elicited ranged from the ridiculous to grave discussions of the Iraq war and foreign policy. John Edwards didn't like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's bright coral jacket.

The innovative questions added an Internet age twist to the oldest forum in politics - a debate.

"The greatest innovation of this debate is that we're seeing candidates respond to real voters instead of polished TV personalities," said Michael Silberman of the online consulting firm EchoDitto. "It's a win for the candidates who are at their best when addressing voters. It's a win for democracy, since average Americans outside of the early primary states now have the opportunity to ask direct questions of candidates."

Democratic strategist Kiki McLean said the format got the candidates to speak "in real language, not citing legislative bill numbers."

Yet sometimes they had to be pressed to answer directly. Clinton was asked three times whether she would put U.S. troops into the Darfur region of Sudan before she answered no. After a video of a pastor asking Edwards if it's acceptable to use his religion to deny gay marriage, Edwards talked about his personal conflict over the issue. The pastor was sitting in the audience and said he didn't hear everything he wanted to hear. Edwards responded flatly that it's not right to use religion to deny anyone their rights and he won't do it.

The candidates were asked whether they would take the presidency at minimum wage. Most said yes. "Well, we can afford to work for the minimum wage because most folks on this stage have a lot of money," Obama said. When Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd tried to protest that he wasn't in the same league, Obama said, "You're doing all right, Chris."