Republican Sen. John McCain will not let Sen. Barack Obama off the hook when it comes to statements his likely Democratic presidential opponent made about negotiating unconditionally with leaders of rogue nations such as Iran.
McCain campaign officials say Mr. Obama's attempts to clarify his position will only weaken his case to win the White House.
Mr. Obama stepped back from his position on Monday, but Mr. McCain yesterday again mocked the idea of meeting directly with leaders of nations trying to obtain nuclear weapons, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"Today, some people seem to think they've discovered a brand new cause, something no one before them ever thought of. Many believe all we need to do to end the nuclear programs of hostile governments is to have our president talk with leaders in Pyongyang and Tehran, as if we haven't tried talking to these governments repeatedly over the past two decades," Mr. McCain said in a speech at the University of Denver.
Mr. Obama, the Democratic presidential front-runner, has been pummeled for weeks by Mr. McCain and other Republicans for pledging to meet with the leaders of countries such as Iran, Syria, Cuba and Venezuela with "no conditions." The senator from Illinois said the U.S. president should not fear face-to-face dialogue with any foreign leader.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and several other prominent Democrats have broken with Mr. Obama over the issue.
"Throughout my career, I've talked to a lot of bad guys. You know, I have talked to [Cuban dictator Fidel] Castro. I think you don't talk to Ahmadinejad. You talk to some of the moderate clerics," Mr. Richardson said last Wednesday on Fox News.
While campaigning in New Mexico this week, Mr. Obama sought to reframe his position. He noted that Iran holds a presidential election four months after the next U.S. president takes office in January, and that Mr. Ahmadinejad's popularity is weakening.
"There's no reason why we would necessarily meet with Ahmadinejad before we know that he was actually in power," Mr. Obama told reporters Monday. "He's not the most powerful person in Iran."
The International Atomic Energy Agency issued a statement Monday that said Iran may be withholding information needed to establish whether it tried to make nuclear arms.
During a Democratic debate in July, Mr. Obama was asked whether he would "be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries."
"I would," he said. "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. ... We have the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward. I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them."
Mr. McCain has rejected that view, saying direct dialogue with Mr. Ahmadinejad would give the Iranian president a global spotlight and send the wrong signal to U.S. allies, such as Israel, which the Iranian president has called a "stinking corpse."
Republicans say Mr. Obama's reposturing also is worrisome.
"The fact that Senator Obama would try to backtrack from a key pillar of his foreign-policy agenda in the middle of a presidential campaign shows that he clearly doesn't have the judgment or experience to lead as commander in chief," said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers.
Meanwhile yesterday, Mr. McCain called for talks with China to negotiate a temporary halt to production of nuclear-weapons-grade material.
"We should also begin a dialogue with China on strategic and nuclear issues," he said. The goal would be to encourage China to conform to the practices of the other four nuclear powers recognized by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, "including working toward nuclear arsenal reductions and toward a moratorium on the production of additional fissile material."
The senator from Arizona also said the United States should "enter into a new arms control agreement with Russia reflecting the nuclear reductions I will seek."
In response, the Obama campaign said, "By embracing many aspects of Barack Obama's nonproliferation agenda today, John McCain highlighted Obama's leadership on nuclear weapons throughout this campaign."
Mr. McCain's speech in Denver was interrupted four times by demonstrators opposing his support of continued military involvement in Iraq. Each time, the protesters were escorted out and the several hundred people in attendance tried to shout them down by chanting Mr. McCain's name.
Mr. McCain grew increasingly irritated and then used the opportunity to press his case against withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.
"This may turn into a longer speech than you had anticipated," Mr. McCain said. "And by the way, I will never surrender in Iraq, my friends." He received a standing ovation before continuing his nonproliferation remarks.
Mr. Obama also encountered some difficulty in his New Mexico speech. He said his uncle was "part of the first American troops to go into Auschwitz and liberate the concentration camps."
In fact, Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz, and Mr. Obama's campaign later clarified that the candidate had meant to say Buchenwald, which American troops liberated in April 1945.