ABC News’ Sunlen Miller, Bret Hovell and Ed O’Keefe Report: Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Barack Obama, D-Ill, sparred in separate speeches Friday, perhaps a foreshadowing of the tone of the general election race to come.
At the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association in Louisville, Ky., the presumptive Republican nominee hit hard at Obama, calling him reckless and saying that the American people have a right to question his leadership abilities.
Watch the VIDEO HERE.
"Senator Obama made some remarks I’d like to respond to. I welcome a debate about protecting America. No issue is more important," McCain said.
"Senator Obama claimed all I had to offer was the quote ‘naïve and irresponsible’ belief that tough talk would cause Iran to give up its nuclear program. He should have known better," McCain told the pro-gun rights crowd.
McCain went on to echo the tone of the Bush speech, which criticized Obama’s remarks in a primary season debate that he would be willing to meet with world leadersr, including some with whom the US does not currently have diplomatic relations, like Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
"I have some news for Senator Obama," McCain began, "Talking, not even with soaring rhetoric, in unconditional meetings with the man who calls Israel a stinking corpse, and arms terrorists who kill Americans will not convince Iran to give up its nuclear program."
"It is reckless to suggest that unconditional meetings will advance our interests," McCain said, to a round of applause at the NRA conference. "You know it would be a wonderful thing if we lived in a world where we don’t have enemies. But that’s not the world we live in. And until senator Obama understands that reality, the American people have every reason to doubt whether he has the strength, judgment and determination to keep us safe."
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., fired back at President George W. Bush and presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., earlier Friday, after a dust-up over comments Bush made while speaking to the Israeli parliament Thursday.
"After almost eight years, I did not think I could be surprised by almost anything George Bush says," Obama told a crowd at a campaign event in Watertown, South Dakota, Friday, "He accused me and other Democrats of wanting to negotiate with terrorists and said we were appeasers no different than people who appeased the Nazis before World War II."
Watch Obama’s remarks HERE
Speaking before the Knesset on the 60th anniversary of Israel’s statehood, Bush said, "Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is –- the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history."
Watch Bush’s comments in Israel HERE
"That’s exactly the kind of appalling attack that has divided our country," Obama said Friday, going on to criticize McCain for concurring with Bush.
The presumptive Republican nominee was questioned about President Bush’s remarks and said, "Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along."
"It does bring up an issue I will be discussing with the American people," McCain said, "and that is why does Barack Obama, Senator Obama want to sit down with a state sponsor of terrorism?"
"What does he want to talk about with, with [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad who said that Israel’s a stinking corpse, who said that he wants to wipe Israel off the map, who’s sending the most explosive devices into Iraq, killing Americans?" he said. "The point is that peace through strength is the way we achieve peace in the world. That’s the point. I will debate this issue with Senator Obama throughout this campaign."
Going farther, McCain said Thursday that Obama’s willingness to sit down with the president of Iran shows "naiveté and inexperience and lack of judgment."
Watch McCain’s attack on Obama HERE
Obama tied Bush and McCain together on Friday, in what is clearly becoming the opening salvo in the yet to be begun general election campaign.
"I want to be perfectly clear with George and John McCain," Obama said, "If George Bush and John McCain want to have a debate about protecting the United States of America, that is a debate I’m willing to have anytime, anywhere because that is a debate that I will win because George Bush and John McCain have a lot to answer for."
In a press conference following his town hall meeting in South Dakota, Obama continued on the offensive, insisting there is "no separation" between Bush and McCain and repeating the challenge that he would meet McCain "anywhere, anytime" for a debate on foreign policy.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who continues to campaign hard in advance of Tuesday’s primaries in Oregon and Kentucky, also criticized Bush on Thursday.
"On the face of it and especially in light of his failures in foreign policy, this is the kind of statement that has no place in any presidential address and certainly to use an important moment like the 60th anniversary celebration of Israel to make a political point seems terribly misplaced," said the New York Senator during an impromptu conference with reporters. "Unfortunately this is what we’ve come to expect from President Bush who has refused to change course in Iraq, neglected Afghanistan and failed to provide leadership on the range of important issues that face our country and the world."
It may be a smart political tactic for Obama to connect the President, who hit a historic low approval rating of 31% in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, and McCain.
Obama went on to call the statements by Bush and McCain "dishonest" and "dismissive", criticizing McCain for calling for civility during a speech Thursday morning before making the statement against Obama later that day.
"I’m running for president to change course," Obama said to the applause of the South Dakota crowd.
ABC News’ White House troops point out that the President has made similar statements in the past and Bush did not specifically cite Obama by name, though he did reference Sen. William Borah’s immortal reaction upon hearing that Hitler had invaded Poland and begun World War II, something he has not highlighted in the past.
"(The President) has said similar things before," a White House official told ABC News’ Martha Raddatz. "But it is in reference to a number of people, think Carter, others who have engaged in this or suggested it."
White House spokesperson Dana Perino was asked if Bush’s line was a slam against Obama and she insisted, "It is not."
"I understand that when you are running for office sometimes you think the world revolves around you. That is not always true and it is not true in this case," Perino added, though the White House is keenly aware of how such statements might play during a heated political season and has steadfastly avoided commenting on the 2008 race.
Late Thursday that notion seemed to be confirmed.
"Did we know this could be construed as being about Obama? Yes, of course," a White House source told ABC News. "But was this about just Obama? No, it was about Pelosi, Carter, Biden, Obama, etc. When the line went in the speech, we made sure that it was the same as everything (Bush) has said in the past. This was not about just Obama."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Cali., did not take kindly to the remarks calling Bush’s statement "beneath the dignity of the office of the president" in her weekly press conference on Capitol Hill.
Others including Sen. Joe Biden, D-Dela., had a more blunt response.
"This was a political hit. This was a hit. Not trying to make a point," Biden, who will be a guest on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" this Sunday, said in a pugnacious counteroffensive against the president on behalf of Obama on Thursday.
Biden took Bush to task and said the president should "get a life".
ABC News’ Ann Compton, Lindsey Ellerson, Jon Garcia, Martha Raddatz, and Z. Byron Wolf contributed to this report.