From NBC/NJ's Athena Jones
WATERTOWN, S.D. -- Barack Obama used his first campaign stop in South Dakota to respond to President Bush's comments yesterday to the Israeli Knesset that people who would negotiate with "terrorists and radicals" were like those who appeased Adolph Hitler.
The president's remarks have been interpreted as a hit on Obama, who has called for U.S. diplomatic engagement with friends as well as foes -- notably Iran -- and at a rural town hall with some 2,100 people in this June 3 primary state, Obama hit back against Bush and criticized presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, who agreed with the president's statements yesterday and called on the Illinois senator to explain why he wants to sit down with a man whose government supports terrorists and who wants to wipe Israel off the map – a reference to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Obama said Bush had accused him and other Democrats of being "appeasers" calling it a divisive, appalling political attack targeted to the domestic market and made on a day meant to celebrate Israel's 60th anniversary. The White House has said Bush was not specifically targeting Obama, who also hit McCain for what he called hypocrisy.
"Then John McCain gives a speech. He gave a speech in the morning where he talked about the need for civility in our politics," Obama said with a laugh. ""He talked about elevating the debate in our country. He talked about reaching out in a bipartisan fashion to the other side and then not one hour later, he turned around and embraced George Bush's attacks on Democrats. He jumped on a call with a bunch of bloggers and said that I wasn't fit to protect this nation that I love, because I wanted to sit down and negotiate with tough diplomacy with countries like Iran."
The senator said he was ready to debate Bush and McCain on the issue of protecting the American people and argued the two Republicans should explain we the United States was still at war in Iraq and had not captured Osama bin Laden, why al Qaeda was "stronger than ever", why Hamas controls Gaza and why Iran has been strengthened.
As he has been doing for some time now, Obama sought to highlight what he sees as similarities between McCain and Bush.
"That's the Bush-McCain record on protecting this country. Those are the failed policies that John McCain wants to double down on, because he still hasn't spelled out one substantial way in which he'd be different from George Bush when it comes to foreign policy," he said.
With historically low approval ratings for Bush and after suffering losses in several special elections, including one in a Republican stronghold in Mississippi this week, GOPers are worried their candidates, from McCain down to members of Congress will need to distance themselves from the president. Obama -- and Hillary Clinton -- have tried to do just the opposite.
Hamas and "hypocrisy"
Obama went further on the issue of Hamas, citing reports that McCain had acknowledge there could be a need to meet with the group.
"John McCain has repeated this notion that I am prepared to negotiate with terrorists. I have never said that. I have been adamant about not negotiating with Hamas," he said. "In fact, the irony is yesterday, just as John McCain was making his attacks a story broke that he was actually guilty of the exact same thing that he's accusing me of and in fact was saying that maybe we need to deal with Hamas and that's the kind of hypocrisy we've been seeing in our foreign policy, the kind of fear-peddling, fear-mongering that has prevented us from actually making us safer."
He said McCain and Bush could not win a foreign policy debate on the merits and called the administration's policy on Iran "a complete failure" and said McCain was running on the same policy.
"He has nothing to offer except the naïve and irresponsible belief that tough talk from Washington will somehow cause Iran to give up its nuclear program and support for terrorism," he said. ""I'm running for President to change course. Not to continue George Bush's course."
The senator repeated his belief in engaging Iran in the way that past president like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan engaged foes and laid a framework for what he believes Iran must do.
"I understand George Bush's secretary of defense suggests we talk directly to Iran, so I don't know if George Bush is calling his own secretary of defense an appeaser," he said. ""It's time to present Iran with a clear choice. If it abandons its nuclear program, support for terror, and threats to Israel, then Iran can rejoin the community of nations. If not, Iran will face deeper isolation and steeper sanctions."
Obama also sought to paint McCain as a flip-flopper, noting he had spoken about the possibility of a keeping troops in Iraq for 100 years (although McCain did say as long as there were no casualties) but had shifted his stance after seeing the polls.
"Yesterday he said suddenly our troops could be home by 2013, although he didn't explain how he was going to do it," he said. "He offered the promise that America will win a victory, with no understanding that Iraq is fighting a civil war. Just like George Bush, his plan isn't about winning, it's about staying, and that's why there will be a clear choice in November: fighting a war without end, or ending this war and bringing our troops home. Because we don't need John McCain's prediction about when the war will end -- we need a plan to end it and that's what I'm providing during this campaign."
McCain response & rural policy
The McCain campaign emailed a response to Obama's speech: ""It was remarkable to see Barack Obama's hysterical diatribe in response to a speech in which his name wasn't even mentioned," wrote spokesman Tucker Bounds. "These are serious issues that deserve a serious debate, not the same tired partisan rants we heard today from Senator Obama. Senator Obama has pledged to unconditionally meet with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- who pledges to wipe Israel off the map, denies the Holocaust, sponsors terrorists, arms America's enemies in Iraq and pursues nuclear weapons. What would Senator Obama talk about with such a man? It would be a wonderful thing if we lived in a world where we don't have enemies. But that is not the world we live in, and until Senator Obama understands that, the American people have every reason to doubt whether he has the strength, judgment and determination to keep us safe."
Obama campaigned today with former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, an earlier supporter and his event in Watertown was held in a barn. During his opening remarks, the candidate also hit McCain for voting against policies he said would help rural America.
"The fact is when John McCain had the chance to support alternative energy, he rejected the single biggest investment in renewable energy in history, including incentives that contributed to a nearly 50% increase in wind power generation in the last year," he said. "He's voted against renewable fuel mandates and investing in clean energy over and over again. That's not a record that rural America can count on. That's not the support that we need to show for our rural economy."