WASHINGTON — Can Barack Obama take a punch? Can he throw one? Will he fight back when sweet reason doesn't work? Can he plunge into a smack-down without endangering the image he's crafted as the avatar of a kinder, gentler politics that unites rather than divides?
Obama's quest for the Democratic presidential nomination may depend in part on how he answers those questions as he responds to Hillary Clinton's revitalized campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Clinton thinks combat politics is "fun," and often boasts of her ability to "fight the Republican attack machine."
Obama also faces rougher treatment from Republican John McCain and a political press corps that feels burned by the Obama campaign's misleading denials of a recent meeting with Canadian officials.
Obama, 46, a freshman senator from Illinois, soared to Democratic front-runner status based on his conciliatory style and inspirational rhetoric. He talks of his experience in bare-knuckle Chicago politics, by his own account he's had little experience playing political gladiator in the big leagues.
Americans say they're tired of personal attacks and negative campaigning, but they also want a president who can go toe to toe with the likes of Russia's Vladimir Putin or Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In Obama's 2006 memoir, "The Audacity of Hope," he recalls how after serving eight years in the Illinois legislature, "I understood politics as a full-contact sport, and minded neither the sharp elbows nor the occasional blind-side hit. But occupying as I did an ironclad Democratic district, I was spared the worst of Republican invective."
His U.S. Senate win in 2004 was made easy when his primary and general election opponents self-destructed amid personal scandals. Obama wrote that when he arrived on Capitol Hill in 2005, he felt "like the rookie who shows up after the game, his uniform spotless, eager to play, even as his mud-splattered teammates tend to their wounds."
Obama can't be faulted for his luck, but by his own admission, confrontation and aggression aren't instinctive to him.
"By nature, I'm not somebody who gets real worked up about things," he wrote.
"When people at dinner parties ask me how I can possibly operate in the current political environment, with all the negative campaigning and personal attacks, I may mention Nelson Mandela, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or some guy in a Chinese or Egyptian prison somewhere. In truth, being called names is not such a bad deal."
The morning after his stinging primary losses last Tuesday in Texas and Ohio, Obama flirted with attacking Clinton, but stopped short.
"What exactly is this foreign experience that she's claiming?" Obama asked. "I know she talks about visiting 80 countries. It's not clear: Was she negotiating treaties or agreements, or was she handling crises during this period of time? My sense is, the answer is no. So I think it's important to examine that claim and not just allow her to assert it. . . . She has made the argument that she is thoroughly vetted, in contrast to me. I think it's important to examine that argument."
Yet later the same day, Obama strategist David Axelrod emphasized: "This is not a decision to go negative. This is an attempt to see to it that both campaigns are held to the same yardstick."
Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire, said that Obama appeared uncomfortable with bare-knuckle politics. His failure to punch back hurt him in New Hampshire's January primary, which he lost narrowly to Clinton, just as it hurt him last week in Ohio and Texas.
Scala recalled that Clinton hit Obama in a New Hampshire mailer challenging his credentials as an abortion-rights supporter. In last Tuesday's contests, Clinton questioned the sincerity of Obama's opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"Obama failed to close the lead. He was on cruise control. First in New Hampshire, then in Ohio and Texas, Clinton went on the attack," Scala said. "And Obama failed to counter it. He's shown an ability to get ahead, but not the ability to engage in the trenches in the last 72 hours. That's got to be worrisome.
"He really has not been in a close election. There is some inexperience fighting in close battles. Also, it's not his thing. He's shown some discomfort with that. He prefers to stay cool. Like Bill Bradley (whose 2000 presidential bid failed). Politicians like that don't like to fight back. . . . For all their virtues, the failure to close has to be a concern."
Obama faces a special dilemma because so much of his support comes from independents, disillusioned Democrats and young people who are drawn to his central promise to reject politics as usual and win on his virtues rather than by tearing down rivals.
That said, not all U.S. presidents displayed aggressive personalities. Ronald Reagan charmed more than he frightened. He was known for a cheerful optimism that appealed across partisan lines even as some of his policies polarized people. Bill Clinton, another popular two-term president, practiced conciliation more than intimidation.
Reagan and Bill Clinton proved resilient when politics turned rough, however. Whether Obama can too remains to be seen.
In many facets of his life, Obama has compensated for his reluctance to attack by relying on other strengths: intellect, cunning and approachability.
A small example: In December, Sports Illustrated ran writer S.L. Price's account of a one-on-one basketball game with Obama, who's loved the sport since childhood.
On the court, Price wrote, Obama was "unselfish but unafraid to shoot" and "could talk trash without seeming mean, compete feverishly without seeming angry."
During their game, Obama observed that Price was larger and encouraged his rival to use his physical advantage to "bang inside a bit."
Then, when Price got more aggressive, Obama calmly faded back to sink longer shots and win.
On the other hand, he wasn't playing Hillary Clinton — or John McCain.