Is Barack Obama a wimp? Forget about whether he is prepared to answer a ringing phone at 3 a.m. Is he prepared to answer the attacks of Hillary Clinton at high noon?
Obama is not incapable of defending himself. And, occasionally, he strikes back. But he seems like the guy who brings a Nerf bat to a knife fight.
She says he is unprepared to be commander in chief and is not capable of defending our children in a time of national crisis.
He says she should release her tax returns and is trying to "hoodwink" people about his being on a ticket with her.
OK, I am being a little unfair to him. He also says he will exercise better "judgment" than she will when he answers that ringing phone. But his attacks always seem based on reason, while hers seem more like a swift punch to the gut.
And it is instructive that during her victory speech after the Ohio primary last week, Clinton used boxing imagery: "For everyone here in Ohio and across America who's ever been counted out but refused to be knocked out: ... This one is for you."
She sees this race as a fight, not an intellectual exercise.
Some say Obama cannot hit back sharply because that undermines his message of wanting to change the way politics is conducted in this country. He is a high road guy, not a low road guy.
In a debate in South Carolina, he did deliver one zinger. Talking about his days working as a community organizer on the far South Side of Chicago, he said to Clinton, "While I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart."
You could almost hear the intake of breath in the press room as Obama finally delivered a punch.
But that has never really happened since. In subsequent debates, she would accuse him of providing "change you can Xerox" and otherwise mock him.
He said Clinton had been campaigning "magnificently."
True, the audience booed her and applauded him, but, as I wrote at the time, I was left wondering whether Obama had an instinct for the jugular.
The Democratic nominee is going to need one. The battle now is not really for the pledged delegates, those won in caucuses and primaries. Both sides agree Obama will enter the Democratic convention with more pledged delegates. The real battle is to persuade the 795 party insiders, the superdelegates, to go with the candidate who can win in November.
In other words, who is tough enough to beat John McCain? And the one thing to keep in mind about McCain is not that he has a temper but that he is a warrior. He is a tough bird, and he knows how to fight.
In a taped interview I did with Obama in his Senate office at the start of his campaign, I asked him how he was going to respond to attacks.
"I learned my politics in Chicago, a place not known for producing pushovers," he said forcefully. "If somebody goes at us, we'll respond. I am not averse to drawing sharp contrasts between myself and other candidates. What I don't abide by is personal attacks, questioning the motives of other candidates, distorting or manipulating what they say. It's not something I am personally comfortable with and not what I think the country wants."
I believe that attack, in general, is not something he is personally comfortable with.
A few days ago, Obama's deputy communications director issued a statement that said: "The Clinton campaign has publicly admitted that the only way they can still win this election is by tearing Barack Obama down."
The release said the attacks on Obama were untrue and "yet they repeat them, over and over again, day after day, in an attempt to deceive the American people just so that they can win this election."
This is "exactly why people don't trust their leaders anymore," the release said. "And it's exactly what Barack Obama is running to change."
But the release was titled with unintended irony: "Doing Whatever It Takes to Win."
The Clinton campaign accepts the notion that it will do whatever it takes to win. The Clinton campaign promotes it. It wants Democratic voters, especially the superdelegates, to know that Clinton is a winner, no matter how down-and-dirty the fight.
An Obama aide accidentally calls Clinton a "monster" and is fired. A Clinton aide says Obama is "imitating Ken Starr" and goes on all the talk shows.
Obama sees through the game of politics. He knows it is often dirty and demeaning and destructive.
But seeing through the game is not the same as winning it.