"Whether Ahmadinejad is the right person to meet with right now, we don't even know how much power he is going to have a year from now," he added. "He is not the most powerful person in Iran. And my expectation, obviously, would be to meet with those people who can actually make decisions in terms of actually having them stand down on nuclear weapons or stopping funding [of] Hamas or Hezbollah or meddling in the affairs of Iraq."
Iran's highest-ranking political leader isn't the president -- it's the supreme leader, who is selected by the country's religious leadership.
Obama began making clear that he would engage in "preparations" before a meeting starting shortly after the July debate, after Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton blasted his answer as displaying naiveté about the diplomatic process.
Still, as recently as September, he reiterated his promise to meet with Ahmadinejad himself. Asked about that commitment in the midst of a firestorm over Columbia University's decision to invite the Iranian president to speak, Obama indicated that he stood by it.
"Nothing's changed with respect to my belief that strong countries and strong presidents talk to their enemies and talk to their adversaries," Obama said. "I find many of President Ahmadinejad's statements odious and I've said that repeatedly. And I think that we have to recognize that there are a lot of rogue nations in the world that don't have American interests at heart. But what I also believe is that, as John F. Kennedy said, we should never negotiate out of fear but we should never fear to negotiate."
Last week, in South Dakota, Obama sought to explain what he meant at last July's debate when he agreed to meetings "without preconditions."
"Preconditions, as it applies to a country like Iran, for example, was a term of art because this administration has been very clear that it will not have direct negotiations with Iran until Iran has met preconditions that are, essentially, what Iran views and many other observers would view as the subject of the negotiations," Obama told reporters.
"The point is that I would not refuse to meet until they agree to every position that we want, but that doesn't mean that we would not have preparation," he continued. "The preparation would involve starting with low level, lower-level diplomatic contacts, having our diplomatic core work through with Iranian counterparts -- an agenda. But what I have said is that, at some point, I would be willing to meet."
McCain has focused intensely on Obama's answer at the debate last summer, while ignoring his subsequent attempts to clarify his position.
"Sen. Obama wants to sit down with [Ahmadinejad] unconditionally, face to face," McCain told reporters in Miami, Tuesday. "It enhances Ahmadinejad. What are they going to talk about, the destruction of Israel?"
While Obama has said he has been consistent throughout the past year, even some Democrats detect an evolving position.
"This is a fellow who, I think, shorthanded an answer that, in fact, was the wrong answer, in my view, saying, 'I would, within the first year' -- it implied he'd personally sit down with anybody who wanted to sit down with him," Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., a former presidential candidate, who is now neutral in the race, said on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday.