NEW ORLEANS — President Barack Obama and Republican Sarah Palin sparred from a distance over nuclear policy with each questioning the other's experience on the issue in a potential preview of the 2012 White House race.
"Unbelievable," Palin said earlier this week after Obama rewrote the U.S. nuclear strategy, and she suggested the president was weak on nuclear defense.
Obama, in Prague to sign a nuclear reduction treaty with Russia, countered by deriding the former Alaska governor who resigned midway through her first term as "not much of an expert" on nuclear issues.
Palin hit back Friday during a speech to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans with a reference to Obama's early career choice. Mocking the president, she dismissed "all the vast nuclear experience that he acquired as a community organizer."
Until now, Obama hadn't responded directly to attacks by Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee.
The spat began Wednesday when Palin criticized Obama's new nuclear defense policy. Her comments came during an interview on Fox News, where she is a paid analyst. She likened Obama to a kid poised for a playground fight who said, "Go ahead, punch me in the face and I'm not going to retaliate. Go ahead and do what you want to with me."
Palin was particularly incensed about the policy that says if a nonnuclear state were to use chemical or biological weapons against the United States or its allies, it would face a potentially devastating conventional military strike by the United States, but not a nuclear one.
"No administration in America's history would, I think, ever have considered such a step that we just found out President Obama is supporting today," Palin said.
Across the globe in Prague, Obama was asked on Thursday by ABC News to respond to the criticism.
"I really have no response," the president said. "Because last I checked, Sarah Palin's not much of an expert on nuclear issues."
Obama added: "If the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are comfortable with it, I'm probably going to take my advice from them and not from Sarah Palin."
In Prague, Obama signed a treaty with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that orders both nations to shrink their nuclear arsenals. That deal must still be ratified by the Russian legislature and the U.S. Senate.
Speaking Friday at the University of Louisville, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered assurances that the treaty enables the United States to maintain a "strong, flexible deterrent" as she urged divided Republicans and Democrats to ratify the pact.