Barack Obama cowers in the shadow of Hillary Clinton

In mythic tales from "Superman" to "Star Wars" to "Spider-Man," there comes a moment when the young superhero has to learn to harness his powers. That's the challenge Barack Obama faces now.

Clearly, the 45-year-old senator is blessed with many gifts. He can write and talk, think and walk, with exceptional grace and agility.

When he wants to, Obama can rouse the crowd to multiple ovations, as he did Tuesday when he talked with a preacher's passion about the "quiet riot" of frustration of blacks in America, on issues like Katrina, in a speech before black clergy at Hampton University in Virginia.

But often he reverts to Obambi, tentative about commanding the stage and consistently channeling the excitement he engenders. At times, he seems to be actively resisting his phenom status and easy appeals to emotion. When he should fire up, he dampens. When he should dominate, he's deferential. When he should lacerate, he's languid.

In the first two Democratic debates and Monday night's forum on faith, Hillary Clinton commanded the stage, just like a great squash player dominates the T. The woman radiated more authority than the glamour boys flanking her - and she did it despite the pressure of having a few new books published with salacious and unflattering nuggets about her.

In the South Carolina debate, Obama was - absurdly - taken by surprise when Brian Williams asked the requisite Dukakis question designed to elicit manly passion: How would he respond if al-Qaida hit two U.S. cities? The senator ignored the visceral nature of the question and rambled on cerebrally about natural disasters, working with the international community and about how he would have to see whether there was "any intelligence on who might have carried it out so that we can take potentially some action to dismantle that network."

He was already told that it was al-Qaida in the question, and "potentially," "some" and "dismantle" are not the sort of fast-and-furious words the moment required. A bit later, he doubled back to say he would hunt down terrorists, but it was too late.

In the New Hampshire debate Sunday night, Obama again missed his chances. Hillary is the one he needs to unseat, but he treads gingerly around her. Instead, he wasted his time tangling with Dennis Kucinich in the first debate and slapping back John Edwards in the second.

When Hillary admitted that she had not read the National Intelligence Estimate before voting to authorize the president to go to war, Obama had a clear shot. The woman who always does her homework did not bother to do her homework on the most important vote of her Senate career because her political viability was more important than the president's duplicity.

Obama let the opportunity for a sharp comment pass. He made an oblique one, without mentioning her name, noting that former Sen. Bob Graham said the NIE was one of the reasons he voted against the war authorization.

He missed another chance when Hillary said at the beginning of the debate that she believed "we are safer than we were" before 9/11, even though the Democrats won Congress with the opposite argument last fall, and even though the Iraq War has clearly made the world more dangerous than ever.

The next day, after reflecting on the matter overnight, the Obama campaign sent out a rebuttal to Hillary's ridiculous claim, citing reports showing that radicalization in the Muslim world and terrorism are spreading rather than diminishing. The belated memo was blandly addressed to "Interested Parties." But by then the only thing that was interesting was why it took Obambi so long.

Meanwhile, Hillary's Web site blared the headline "In Command" linking to "raves" of her confidant debate performance.

The Boy Wonder cannot take over the country unless he can take on Wonder Woman. ...

Maureen Dowd, a columnist for the New York Times, can be reached at New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.