Barack Obama's original answer seemed crystal clear: last July, asked whether he would meet with the "leaders" of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea "without precondition," during his first year as president, he quickly answered yes.
"I would," Obama, D-Ill., said at the CNN/YouTube debate. "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."
Obama has not renounced his commitment to meet directly with the leaders of rogue nations, including Iran. But in recent weeks, his top aides and advisers have sought to add caveats to his promise, as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has made Obama's debate answer a central campaign issue.
The Obama campaign is now offering a more nuanced approach that would not necessarily include a presidential meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- and that stresses diplomatic work that would take place before any such meetings take place.
Asked about Obama's original statement Tuesday morning on CNN, former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., a top Obama adviser and supporter, said top-level meetings would not be immediate -- and would not happen without preliminary extensive diplomatic work.
"I would not say that we would meet unconditionally," said Daschle. "Of course, there are conditions that we [would] involve in preparation in getting ready for the diplomacy. ... 'Without precondition' simply means we wouldn't put obstacles in the way of discussing the differences between us. That's really what they're saying, what Barack is saying."
Susan Rice, a top Obama foreign policy adviser, said Monday that Obama's meetings with Iranian leaders might not include Ahmadinejad.
"He said he'd meet with the appropriate Iranian leaders. He hasn't named who that leader will be," Rice said on CNN. "It would be the appropriate Iranian leadership at the appropriate time -- not necessarily Ahmadinejad."
Obama told ABC News' Jake Tapper in an interview Tuesday that he sees no contradiction in the statements, explaining that he has always said that lower-level diplomatic contacts would lay the groundwork for a presidential meeting.
"I have to say I completely disagree that people have been walking back from anything," Obama said. "They may be correcting the characterizations or distortions of John McCain or others of what I said. What I said was I would meet with our adversaries, including Iran, including Venezuela, including Cuba, including North Korea, without preconditions, but that does not mean without preparation."
On CNN, Tuesday, Obama echoed Rice, saying he may not meet with Ahmadinejad.
"I think this obsession with Ahmadinejad is an example of us losing track of what's important," he said. "I would be willing to meet with Iranian leaders if we had done sufficient preparations for that meeting.
"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."