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The Clinton-Obama spat, Day 4

July 26, 2007 |  4:06 pm

The comity that has long prevailed in the Democratic presidential race may be officially over. At the least, it's on hiatus.

After three days of feuding with Hillary Rodham Clinton over diplomacy with hostile nations, Barack Obama prolonged the spat today with new shots at his main competitor. Look for a full story on the dispute on this website late tonight and in Friday's print editions.

The Times' Michael Finnegan listened in on an Obama conference call set up ostensibly to trumpet an endorsement by Rep. Paul Hodes of New Hampshire, one of the Democrats swept into office in the November midterm election largely because of public discontent with the Iraq war. But jabs at Clinton dominated the discussion, as Obama compared her stated refusal to meet with leaders of adversarial nations without precondition to President Bush's policy of shunning foreign leaders at odds with the U.S. ...

... “You’ll have to ask Sen. Clinton what differentiates her position" from the administration's, Obama said.

Talks with world leaders, he added, enable the U.S. to promote its values and interests, “and I am not afraid to have that conversation with anybody.” To remind Iran’s president, face to face, that the U.S. considers nuclear arms in that nation unacceptable and that Israel is America’s friend is “not going to be a propaganda coup for Iran.”

The Republican National Committee seized on the conflict, issuing a statement today mocking Obama's foreign policy credentials.

"Armed with such self-described qualifications as a diploma and four years of overseas living, Obama declares himself a leader in foreign policy," the RNC taunted. However, campaigning in Iowa today GOP candidate Mitt Romney supported Clinton's view of presidential diplomacy and criticized Obama. "It's absolutely extraordinary that someone can be so out of touch with our world," Romney said.

Then, in a taped CNN interview with John King this afternoon Clinton responded to Obama: "Well, this is getting kind of silly. I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but I’ve never been called George Bush or Dick Cheney certainly. We have to ask what’s ever happened to the politics of hope?

“I have been saying consistently for a number of years now," Clinton continued, "we have to end the Bush era of ignoring problems, ignoring enemies and adversaries. And I have been absolutely clear that we’ve got to return to robust and effective diplomacy. But I don’t want to see the power and prestige of the United States president put at risk by rushing into meetings with the likes of Chavez and Castro and Ahmadinejad.”

The dust-up started Monday at a Democratic debate in South Carolina when, via YouTube video, the candidates were asked whether during their first year as president they would be willing to meet without preconditions with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea.

Obama promptly said he would. Clinton said she would insist first on diplomatic dickering and preparations among lower-level officials, arguing she would not want to be used for propaganda.

The debate had barely ended before Obama aides were defensively saying, of course, he too had meant after careful diplomatic preparations and Clinton forces pounced, saying it showed he was naive and unprepared to lead the country. In contrast, they said, Clinton's answer demonstrated she had the strength and experience to be commander in chief.

Clinton kept the issue alive while campaigning Tuesday in Iowa. Speaking to the Quad-City Times, she termed Obama’s response “irresponsible and frankly naive.”

Obama, in an interview with the same newspaper, smartly tried to redirect the public argument away from his own direct quote to a broader issue where he feels on safer ground. He snapped back: “If you want to talk about irresponsibility and naivete, look at her vote to authorize George Bush to send our troops into Iraq without an exit plan, and then asking the Pentagon about what the plan is five years later.”

To be continued in all likelihood. Meanwhile, The Times' Michael Finnegan has more details in tonight's story and Wednesday's print editions.

-- Don Frederick