From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

We turn now in this part of the show to presidential politics, arguments, ambitions, ads. But first, the arguments.

Now, never mind the Democrats how their last debate back on Monday, the spat that broke out between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama carried on throughout the week. Ostensibly, it's about which candidate has the best approach for dealing with some of the world dictators, but really it's about much more than that.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is here with us to tell us all about it. Mara, I want to begin by first taking a step back. What is this really all about and how and when did it start?

MARA LIASSON: Well, it started in the debate on Monday. They were both asked whether they'd meet without preconditions with America's enemies - people like Hugo Chavez or the leader of Iran. Obama said he would. Hillary said she wouldn't. And for a day, the battle over who had the better answer was conducted by surrogates as it usually is.

The Clinton campaign, in particular, press the point saying it showed how tough and experience she was, what a rookie and how inexperienced he was. But then, Hillary Clinton escalated it by making it personal and by delivering the charge herself. In an interview with an Iowa paper, she called Obama's answer naïve and irresponsible.

Then he shot back saying if anything was naïve and irresponsible, it was her vote to authorize the war. He took it a step further at a rally in New Hampshire saying her position refusing to talk to these dictators, which by the way, Hillary Clinton has criticized the Bush administration for not doing, was Bush-Cheney light.

Now, those are fighting words in the Democratic Party. And Hillary shot back well, whatever happened to the politics of hope?

Now, it sounds a lot like you're mother wears army boots at times.


LIASSON: But that was the state of play.

NORRIS: And these volleys have been going back and forth all week. You actually, this afternoon, had a chance to speak with Senator Barack Obama. Before we go on, let's listen to what he had to say.

LIASSON: Well, he repeated his substantive argument that to refuse to talk with people you disagree with is counterproductive. And, of course, he said, of course, I do diplomatic preparations. But, as to the point that Clinton and her campaign makes about the politics of hope, they're basically saying that Obama, who promised a different kind of politics is a hypocrite whenever he attacks, he said this.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): That's silly. You know, the notion that we can have a substantive argument or that I can challenge some of their conventional wisdom without somehow sacrificing the broader themes of our campaign, which is to bring people together and change the tone of politics, I think makes no sense.

NORRIS: Now, Mara, is this a silly spat that's being blown out of proportion or is there much more here?

LIASSON: I think there is more here. Obama is making the point as he did in that bite that he is challenging conventional wisdom. He's trying to do something different. He is saying she's the incumbent in effect. She's the status quo. He is the future. She is the past. She's running a campaign that sometimes his people would say looks like a restoration. You know, to go back to the good old days of the '90s but campaigns are about the future and they - and he feels he is the future.

For her part, she is using this on some level, silly spat to make the point that she is experienced, tough, ready to be commander in chief and that is the point she is trying to make at every opportunity in this campaign.

NORRIS: It gives a sense that they were itching for a fight or that they were drawn into something?

LIASSON: No, I think they were itching for it. This is the first direct engagement. They felt perfectly comfortable continuing this in person throughout the week, not just through surrogates. It tells you a little bit about the pressure that Clinton is under basically to get that gap that she has kept in the polls to be wider. She wants him to be a little farther back in the rear view mirror than he is.

And for Obama's point, it tells you what pressure he's under to widen the gap to find some way to challenge her. The other thing he told us is we didn't know whether he could take a punch. He's never been in a tough campaign before and I guess, we learn this week that he can and he can return one.

NORRIS: So he can take and he can throw one also. Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: That was NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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