The ’08 campaign was such a searing experience that Obama and his key aides tend to view everything through that prism. There were the early days when Obama seemed bored and his interest in the campaign lagged, along with his standing in the polls. Then came his heady win in Iowa followed by a humbling loss in New Hampshire, then the period when it all could have slipped away, when Rev. Jeremiah Wright taunted white America and Obama was torn between defending his minister and recovering his candidacy. If there’s a campaign analogy to where Obama is now, this is the Reverend Wright period, when the prize hangs in the balance. Opponents of reform won the first part of summer. Now it’s up to Obama to regain the momentum. He prides himself on being a good clutch player, someone who can perform when the pressure’s on. “Just give me the ball,” he said to David Axelrod as he stood waiting to go onstage for his first presidential debate with John McCain…

Obama’s message of conciliation worked perfectly in the ’08 campaign in part because it’s an authentic reflection of his personality. Axelrod harbored doubts about whether Obama’s aversion to confrontation when it becomes nasty and personal would hamper him as a candidate. “When it comes to taking a punch, I don’t know whether you’re Muhammad Ali or Floyd Patterson,” Axelrod wrote to Obama in a November 2006 memo reported in a new book that reprises the campaign by Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz and former Post writer Haynes Johnson. Now Obama supporters are wondering about their man. If they’re to see what he’s made of, Obama has to first get in the ring. Forget the niceties, it’s time to fight.