WASHINGTON (CNN) - The question at Monday night's Democratic debate was straight forward: Should the next president of the United States sit down,without preconditions, with the leaders of Cuba, Iran, Syria, Venezuela and North Korea during his or her first year in office, in an effort to bridge the sharp divisions between those countries and the United States?
Sen. Barack Obama said yes. Hillary Clinton said no. And those responses set off a tempest Tuesday between their two campaigns that later escalated into some pointed comments from the candidates themselves in interviews with an Iowa newspaper.
"I thought it was irresponsible and, frankly, naive to say that he would commit to meeting with Chavez and Castro within the first year," Clinton told the Quad City Times, referring to the Venezuelan and Cuba leaders. "I think Senator Obama gave an answer that I believe he's regretting today."
But if Obama had regrets, they weren't evident in an interview he later gave the same newspaper, in which he called the episode "a nice fabricated controversy" and used some of his strongest language to date in criticizing Clinton's vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq.
"I do think it speaks to a larger point, which is 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 strategy and then asking the Pentagon what the plan is five years later," said Obama.
The question that launched the controversy, from a YouTube user in California, was directed at Obama, who flatly committed to meeting with Fidel Castro, Kim Jong Il, Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Bashar Al-Assad if
he's elected in 2008.
"I would, and the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them, which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration, is ridiculous," Obama said, sparking applause from the audience. "I think it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them."
The senator from Illinois noted that Cold War presidents such as Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy met with their Soviet counterparts, even at a time when Reagan famously denounced the Soviet Union as an "evil empire."
But when she was asked for her position on sitting down with leaders hostile to the United States, Clinton refused to take Obama's pledge, saying she thought it was not a good idea to "promise a meeting at that high of a
evel before you know what the intentions are."
"I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes," the senator from New York said. "I don't want to make a situation even worse. But I certainly agree that we need to get back to diplomacy, which has been turned into a bad word by this administration."
Another of other six candidates on the stage Tuesday night also answered the question - John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina who is running behind Clinton and Obama in the polls. While he expressed a willingness to meet with the leaders, Edwards said he agreed with Clinton that "before that meeting takes place, we need to do the work - the diplomacy - so that the meeting is not going to be used for propaganda purposes."
The Clinton campaign pounced on the contrasting remarks between her and Obama, issuing a memo to reporters Tuesday touting her strength and experience and chiding Obama for committing to "presidential-level meetings with some of the world's worst dictators without preconditions during his first year in office."
The Obama campaign, in turn, issued its own statement accusing Clinton of flip-flopping, based on a comment she made in April that it was "a terrible mistake for our president to say he will not talk with bad people."
However, the Clinton campaign insisted there was no change of course, saying she was talking about diplomatic discussions, not necessarily presidential meetings. And to buttress the point, reporters were put on a conference call with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who said Clinton's comments showed she had "a nuanced and sophisticated understanding" of how the diplomatic process works.
Albright, who served as the top U.S. diplomat in administration of Clinton's husband, traveled to North Korea in October 2000 to meet with Kim Jong Il, in an attempt to lay the groundwork for a presidential visit. But the meeting did not come off before Bill Clinton left office. Albright has endorsed Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy.
- CNN's Candy Crowley contributed to this report.