President Barack Obama's re-election campaign mocked Mitt Romney late Wednesday as being "scared" of Venezuela's anti-American President Hugo Chavez "like he's ten feet tall," the latest rhetorical broadside in an escalating war of words.
"Hugo Chavez has become increasingly marginalized and his influence has waned," Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement. "It's baffling that Mitt Romney is so scared of a leader like Chavez whose power is fading, while Romney continues to remain silent about how to confront al-Qaeda or how to bring our troops home from Afghanistan."
The rhetorical rumble began late Tuesday when Obama told a Florida television interviewer that Chavez "has not had a serious national security impact on us." Romney promptly led a chorus of angry Republican charges that Obama had failed to confront the alleged threat posed by the Venezuelan leader as part of a "pattern of weakness" in foreign policy.
"People like Hugo Chavez want attention—and that's exactly what Mitt Romney and his supporters gave him today. Governor Romney is only playing into the hands of Chavez by acting like he's ten feet tall," LaBolt said in a sharply personal and mocking counter.
"It's disturbing that Mitt Romney is trying to score cheap political points by blustering and misrepresenting the President's record while failing to outline any coherent foreign policy strategy," LaBolt charged.
Obama had been asked by Miami's America TeVe if he was concerned about what has been a public show of solidarity between Chavez and Iran.
"The truth is that we're always concerned about Iran engaging in destabilizing activity around the globe," the president replied. "But overall my sense is that what Mr. Chavez has done over the last several years has not had a serious national security impact on us."
"We have to be vigilant," Obama went on. "My main concern when it comes to Venezuela is having the Venezuelan people have a voice in their affairs and that you end up ultimately having fair and free elections, which we don't always see."
In a written statement, Romney assailed what he called "a stunning and shocking comment by the president."
"It is disturbing to see him downplaying the threat posed to U.S. interests by a regime that openly wishes us ill. Hugo Chavez has provided safe haven to drug kingpins, encouraged regional terrorist organizations that threaten our allies like Colombia, has strengthened military ties with Iran and helped it evade sanctions, and has allowed a Hezbollah presence within his country's borders," Romney said.
"And he is seeking to lead—together with the Castros—a destabilizing, anti-democratic, and anti-American 'Bolivarian Revolution' across Latin America," the former Massachusetts governor said, accusing Obama of having "emboldened adversaries and diminished U.S. influence in every region of the world."
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, often listed as a possible Romney running mate, also weighed in. And the Romney campaign released similar statements from surrogates like Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Polls show Americans give Obama higher marks on foreign policy than on the economy, which is the top issue on voters' minds.
LaBolt's statement came after White House press secretary Jay Carney punted on the question of why Obama views Chavez as not a serious national security threat.
"You know what, I'm going to have to refer you to the State Department on that. I saw that story before I came out, but I haven't—I didn't read it, so I don't know the underlying aspect of it," Carney said.