WASHINGTON -- Until last week, White House hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) lived a charmed political life, never the subject during his campaigns for state Senate, U.S. House and U.S. Senate of a major negative hit, so he never had to punch back.
Accused by chief rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) of being "irresponsible, and frankly, naive" for saying he would meet with foreign despots without preconditions during his first year as president -- the charge coming the day after Obama said it in Monday's Democratic primary debate -- the Obama campaign mounted a ferocious response, giving a taste of what is in store in the months ahead.
Obama shot back that she was the naive one for voting to authorize the Iraq war, marking the first time the two have personally engaged, on the record and not through surrogates or memos.
With Obama's theme of "change" and "hope" threatened by a word that raises questions about his experience -- a vulnerability --the Obama camp started a drive to neutralize the "naive" tag by applying it to Clinton for voting to authorize the Iraq war -- her major political problem -- and calling her (not by name) Bush-Cheney lite. The Obama campaign launched banner ads on its New Hampshire and Iowa Web sites Friday stating there is "one candidate who knows it's naive to believe we can resolve conflict without talking to our adversaries."
All this notwithstanding Obama's pledge to run a different kind of campaign.
That Obama is running "an aspirational campaign," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe told me Friday, does not mean he does not engage when there are "substantial differences" on the table.
On Saturday, the most serious dispute of the six-month campaign -- dealing with leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea -- continued, as a Clinton campaign co-chairman, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, called on Obama to "clarify his comments as to whether or not he is for preconditions or not and would cease and desist from criticizing and distorting the record and the comments of Senator Clinton."
Vilsack made his remarks in a hastily arranged (37-minute notice) afternoon conference call with reporters. He noted that Obama, in a Miami Herald interview last Sunday, said he would meet with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. "Under certain conditions, I always believe in talking," Obama said.
That is, Vilsack said, "precisely what Senator Clinton said during the debate." Vilsack said Obama's tactic "flies in the face of the promise that Senator Obama gave to all of us when he began his campaign of avoiding negative politics."
Obama was campaigning in Iowa on Saturday, and the Associated Press reported that Obama said he would, as president, be open to meeting in his first year, with no conditions, the leaders of those five nations. "I was called irresponsible and naive because I believe that there is nobody we can't talk to," Obama said.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said in a memo issued in reaction to Vilsack's call, "Obama has been entirely consistent -- he never said he would invite dictators over for a cup of coffee, and he said he wouldn't let these dictators use him as a propaganda tool."
The bottom line is Obama and Clinton, unlike President Bush, would have a diplomatic policy that the United States needs to be talking to enemies as well as friends. At issue in this escalating war of words is the exact process.