WASHINGTON – Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ripped each other as the bigger foreign-policy dunce Thursday on the do’s and don’ts of dealing with dictators.

The Illinois Democrat stepped up the battle by calling Clinton’s approach to world affairs “Bush-Cheney lite.”

Clinton slapped back, “This is getting kind of silly.” In a CNN interview she said, “You know, I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but I’ve never been called George Bush or Dick Cheney.”

The sniping started at Monday’s Democratic debate when Obama answered that he would sit down – without preconditions – to talk with leaders of countries such as Iran, Cuba and Venezuela.

Clinton said she wouldn’t because it would risk being used as a propaganda dupe. She followed up the next day by calling Obama “naive.”

Obama returned fire from the campaign trail in New Hampshire. “I’m not afraid of losing the PR war to dictators,” he said. “I don’t want a continuation with Bush-Cheney. I don’t want Bush-Cheney lite.”

In a conference call with reporters, Obama insisted he really believes Clinton’s foreign policies would be like Bush’s. “I think that’s the record,” Obama said, challenging Clinton to explain how putting conditions on talks with Iran and others would be any different than the way Bush shuns such encounters.

Clinton spokesman Blake Zeff suggested the challenge betrayed Obama’s inexperience.

Analysts said there were good reasons for each side to pursue the fight, with Clinton needing to shake an unexpectedly strong threat from Obama, and Obama needing to show he can take a punch – and hit back.

“If it’s going to get this nasty this early, it’s going to be interesting,” said the University of Iowa’s David Redlawsk, who remembered John Kerry winning Iowa in 2004 after front-running Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt pounded each other.