When Sen. (D-Ill.) was seeking state office a dozen years ago, he took unabashedly liberal positions: flatly opposed to capital punishment, in support of a federal single-payer health plan, against any restrictions on abortion, and in support of state laws to ban the manufacture, sale and even possession of handguns.
Filling out a 12-page questionnaire [part 1 of questionnaire, part 2 of questionnaire] from an Illinois voter group as he sought a state Senate seat in 1996, Obama answered "yes" or "no" - without using the available space to calibrate his views - on some of the most emotional and politically potent issues that a public official can confront.
"Do you support … capital punishment?" one question asked.
"No," the 1996 Obama campaign typed, without explaining his answer in the space provided.
"Do you support state legislation to … ban the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns?" asked one of the three dozen questions.
"Yes," was Obama's entire answer.
Obama said he would support a single-payer health plan for Illinois "in principal" [sic], "although such a program will probably have to be instituted at a federal level; the long-term objective would be a universal care system that does not differentiate between the unemployed, the disabled, and so on." The campaign says Obama has consistently supported single payer health care in principle.
Under single-payer health care, a government system would replace private health insurance. Obama's campaign said he has always supported the idea in concept, but thinks it is not currently practical because of the existing health care infrastructure.
The questionnaire, which was provided to Politico with assistance from political sources opposed to Obama's presidential campaign, raises questions of whether Obama can be painted as too liberal and whether he is insufficiently consistent.
A week after Politico provided the questionnaire to the Obama campaign for comment, an aide called Monday night to say that Obama had said he did not fill out the form, and provided a contact for his campaign manager at the time, who said she filled it out. It includes first-person comments such as: "I have not previously been a candidate."
The campaign said his views have been consistent, and points out that his positions have always been more nuanced than can be conveyed in yes-or-no answers.
Obama, who makes an issue of his opponents' consistency in the presidential race, has tempered many of those 1996 views during his quick rise to the pinnacle of American politics. He now takes less dogmatic positions many of those hot-button issues - in the view of some Democrats, he abandoned the stands as he rose through the ranks.
For instance, Obama says he supports the death penalty in limited circumstances, such as an especially heinous crime. The campaign says Obama has consistently supported the death penalty "in principle" and opposed it "in practice."
On handguns, his campaign said he has consistently been for "common-sense limits, but not banning" throughout his 11-year political career.
Regardless, the blunt statements of his earlier views, preserved on a questionnaire he filled out for an Illinois voter group that later endorsed him, would allow a Republican opponent to paint him as being way to the left of the nation's electorate on questions that have historically been potent wedge issues.
Campaign advisers say that Obama's positions reflect his willingness to remain true to his values, whatever the cost. Obama has argued that he can "change the game" of American politics, and doesn't need to playby the cautious old rules.
"His views are very much in the mainstream of the Democratic Party," said chief strategist David Axelrod, who has known Obama since 1992 and worked with him since 2002. "There are some issues on which he's probably viewed more conservatively. He's been a consistent voice on issues of, for example, parental responsibility and pushed those hard, because he believes in them."
But Obama has never faced a serious Republican electoral challenge. And as the reality that he could be the Democratic nominee sinks in, party analysts are assessing the risks of a career that - unlike that of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, his chief rival for the nomination - has not been spent carefully anticipating and avoiding GOP attacks.
So electability questions that once were directed at Clinton may now be asked about Obama.
Put more bluntly, Republicans think his high-minded approach to issues could make him a sitting duck as he tries to attract the vast middle that determines American elections.
Bill Burton, press secretary of Obama for America, said Clinton's campaign has been talking increasingly about how Obama would play in November. "That's their spin," he said.
Obama's advisers argue that Clinton has her own vulnerabilities from her approach to issues, since she can be tagged with the perception that some of her stands are taken on the basis of political convenience.
"She's been on a lot of sides of a lot of issues, and, ultimately, if you look at the history of the last few elections, that's far more damaging than any one position," Axelrod said.