The leading Democratic candidates for president sparred with each other over the issue of nuclear weapons Thursday and the result was pure heat.
In another broadside indicating the increasingly heated race for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., implied Thursday that comments made by Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., were careless and unpresidential.
Sen. Clinton was referring to Obama's statement earlier in the day that he had ruled out using nuclear weapons against al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Clinton also suggested Obama's high-profile speech earlier in the week in which he said would be willing to invade Pakistan to attack high-profile al Qaeda targets, given actionable intelligence, was inappropriate, further evidence that she is painting her challenger as unprepared for the job of commander in chief.
Regarding terrorist targets in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region, Obama told The Associated Press Thursday: "I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance." He then added: "Involving civilians."
Seeming to think twice about his response, Obama then said, "Let me scratch that. There's been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That's not on the table."
Clinton, asked about his remarks Thursday afternoon, took issue with them.
"Presidents should be very careful at all times in discussing the use or nonuse of nuclear weapons," Clinton said. "Presidents since the Cold War have used nuclear deterrence to keep the peace. And I don't believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or nonuse of nuclear weapons."
On Wednesday, Obama delivered a major anti-terrorism speech in which he essentially threatened the government of Pakistan that as president he would attack al Qaeda targets in the country with or without the permission of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf will not act, we will," Obama said.
Clinton did not take issue with that as an option, but suggested Obama should not have been delivering such messages publicly.
"I am concerned about talking about it," she said. "I think everyone agrees that our goal should be to capture or kill bin Laden and his lieutenants but how we do it should not be telegraphed and discussed for obvious reasons."
Clinton didn't seem to have any problem "talking about" the subject on Wednesday, when interviewed on American Urban Radio News Network.
"I've long believed that we needed tougher, smarter action against terrorists by deploying more troops to Afghanistan, and if we had actionable intelligence that Osama bin Laden or other high-value targets were in Pakistan I would ensure that they were targeted and killed or captured," she said.
Other Democrats seeking the White House criticized Obama, describing the candidate who just three years ago was an obscure Illinois state legislator as in over his head.
"Over the past several days, Senator Obama's assertions about foreign and military affairs have been, frankly, confusing and confused," said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. "He has made threats he should not make and made unwise categorical statements about military options."
On NPR's "Diane Rehm Show," Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Obama "naïve" and implied he wasn't experienced enough for the presidency. "Having talking points on foreign policy doesn't get you there," Biden said of Obama.
On the other hand, one of Obama's chief Senate supporters -- fellow Illinoisan Dick Durbin, the Senate Democratic Whip -- applauded Obama's speech, saying the freshman's remarks were entirely appropriate.
"I think he's thrown down the challenge to Musharraf and I think it's one he can't ignore," said Durbin, who said he hadn't heard about Obama's remarks about nuclear weapons.
Clinton was holding a press conference to discuss a bill she had introduced with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., requiring the Pentagon to brief Congress on plans for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. Having asked for such a briefing in May, Clinton received a letter from Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman in July suggesting that such a request aided enemy propaganda efforts, a letter Defense Secretary Robert Gates distanced himself from.
Gates also promised the Pentagon would provide a classified briefing for the Senate Armed Services Committee on withdrawal planning, which took place Thursday morning. A Senate source told ABC News that Clinton "humbled" Edelman during the briefing for his letter to her.
"You didn't hear that from me," Clinton said laughing, when asked by ABC News about the reported dressing down of the undersecretary. "I would rather not comment because I consider what happens in a classified briefing to be classified."
A senior defense official told ABC News that the briefing contained "a couple of snarky kind of questions such as requesting that Congress be briefed regularly on withdrawal planning."
Asked if Clinton "humbled" Edelman, the official said, "I didn't get that sense, most of the questions at the briefing stayed on substance. There were perhaps a couple of sarcastic kind of questions, a sarcastic line of inquiry. Our guys were very positive and provided information helpful in understanding what it is we're doing."
Clinton and Obama have been engaged in a heated to-and-fro about foreign policy since a debate last week when he said as president he would readily meet with leaders of nations hostile to the U.S., remarks she called "irresponsible and frankly naïve."
Obama responded by implying her views on foreign policy constituted "Bush-Cheney Lite."
Luis Martinez at the Pentagon contributed to this report