White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to answer questions about the president's remarks. The president's campaign spokesman, Ben LaBolt, said Romney is only "playing into the hands of Chavez" and his "outdated rhetoric" by giving him any attention.
"Because of President Obama's leadership, our position in the Americas is much stronger today than before he took office," LaBolt said. "At the same time, Hugo Chavez has become increasingly marginalized and his influence has waned. 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-Qaida or how to bring our troops home from Afghanistan."
Michael Shifter, president of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue, cautioned that it's up to the president to judge in an election year whether it's politically smart to talk about Chavez in a way that draws such heated Republican response in South Florida - especially considering how valuable the swing state's votes are to Obama's prospects.
But Shifter also said that the Obama administration has been careful not to provoke Chavez in any way the Venezuelan president could use to his advantage, particularly as Chavez goes to the polls himself Oct. 7. During the Bush administration, Shifter said, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld escalated tensions by likening Chavez to Hitler.
"He gets sympathy and support for that because it's seen as the U.S. demonizing him," Shifter said. "He plays the victim. I think that Obama been careful not to get into that."
And Romney hasn't always been so critical of Chavez. In 2005, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney was grateful that Chavez's government sent discounted heating oil to Massachusetts in a deal brokered by then-U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass. Venezuela later also provided discounted heating oil to remote Alaskan villages and to poor areas of New York City.