SAN FRANCISCO -- Has Morgan Stanley Dean Witter's Mary Meeker finally met her match in Merrill Lynch's Henry Blodget?

Since 1995, when the Internet industry showed up on Wall Street's radar screen with the Morgan-underwritten IPO of

Netscape

, Meeker has been regarded as the Queen of the Net -- the most sought-after and influential of the sell-side analysts. Her reign has coincided with the rise of the securities analyst from back-office functionary to high-profile opinion-shaper and rainmaker. Few analysts covering any industry have filled that new role with greater success than Meeker.

The lionization of Meeker -- all the odder given her staid, no-nonsense style -- culminated in an April profile in

The New Yorker

, a magazine whose searchlight rarely grazes below such financial giants as

Lawrence Summers

and

John Doerr

. Meeker's new prominence has coincided with the emergence of the brasher, more media-friendly Blodget as a rival in the world of Internet analysis.

Blodget himself is the first to admit that Meeker still rules. "She's No. 1," he says. "She's winning the best deals." Even those who have served at Merrill agree: "He can talk the talk ...

but he's not up to Mary Meeker standards," says a former Merrill employee who has since hopped to the buy-side.

Still, Blodget is hoping "we'll be able to dismantle" some of Meeker's stronghold on the market and bring more underwriting business over to Merrill. Meeker didn't return phone calls seeking comment.

Looking at how far Blodget has come in the past year, it's clear that he has a shot. Blodget became an overnight sensation last December when, as an analyst at

CIBC Oppenheimer

, he issued a bold $400 price

target on

Amazon.com

(AMZN) - Get Report

. Amazon, already up 90% in the month before Blodget's call, traded at 230 at the time.

The call triggered no small controversy. Merrill's then-analyst Jonathan Cohen countered with a $50 target. Amazon hit and then surpassed Blodget's target in a matter of weeks. (The company split its stock 3-for-1 in January. Amazon closed Tuesday at 126 7/8, or 380 pre-split.) Cohen, whose bearish reliance on fundamentals won him few friends at Internet companies seeking to go public, left Merrill in

February to join -- of all places -- an Internet company that takes other Net companies public,

Wit Capital

.

Even now, some say Blodget's authority is based on good timing, whereas Meeker's is built on experience. "There was some luck involved," says one Merrill employee who asked not to be named, referring to Blodget's Amazon.com call. "But he still recognized a shift in the way people do business. He put two and two together quicker" than anyone else, the Merrill employee says.

Since then, Blodget, like Meeker, has shown an impressive strength in moving stocks. In May, when Meeker upgraded

America Online

(AOL)

, the stock surged 10% in one day. A few weeks later, Blodget warned that AOL's second quarter may be

slower than expected thanks to sluggish subscriber growth. Not only did AOL's stock drop 5% that day, but the following day,

PaineWebber

and

Goldman Sachs

issued reports of their own, disputing Blodget's suspicion.

Both have demonstrated weight in the broader Internet sector as well. Blodget sent Net stocks tumbling when a May report cited numbers from

Media Metrix

that said Internet traffic slowed during April. And in June, Meeker wrote she wasn't "convinced" the recent correction in Net stocks was over. Bowing to her command, the sector dropped, with

TheStreet.com Internet Sector

index falling 9% in one day.

Waving the Analyst Wand
Stock price of Amazon from Dec. 7, 1998

Source: Baseline

Blodget still lags Meeker as a draw for big-name

IPOs. So far this year, Merrill has underwritten 12 Internet IPOs to Morgan's 19, according to

Thomson Financial Securities Data

. But Merrill will be the lead underwriter on some higher-profile IPOs this summer, including sports content site

Quokka Sports

and

Internet Capital

, a

CMGI

-like

(CMGI)

investor in Internet start-ups. And the Merrill source says his clients are asking to talk to Blodget.

There's another trick Blodget needs to master -- maintaining his influence on the sector while steering clear of controversial calls. For now, the gutsiness of his early calls still powers Blodget's prominence as an Internet analyst. He jokingly calls himself "the lunatic that recommends all these tulip bulbs."

But at Merrill, he has moved carefully to avoid controversy. Recent reports are taking a more sober tone. One recent note cautioned that "leaders could easily pull back another 50% or more from current levels and the laggards much more" quickly followed with this parenthetical disclaimer, "(we don't think they will, but it's clearly possible)."

Asked about his cautious rhetoric, Blodget offered a defense that is itself vague: "Valuation does matter, but we can't be precise about it," he says.

Such efforts to play it safe may keep Blodget out of hot water, but they may also keep him from dethroning Meeker as the Internet Ax.