If he wanted, the Barack Obama of today could have a pretty good debate with the Barack Obama of yesterday.They could argue about whether the death penalty is ever appropriate. Whether it makes sense to ban handguns. They might explore their differences on the Patriot Act or parental notification of abortion.
And they could debate whether Obama has flip-flopped, changed some of his views as he learned more over the years or is simply answering questions with more detail and nuance now that he is running for president.
The Democratic senator from Illinois hasn't made any fundamental policy shifts, such as changing his view on whether abortion should be legal. But his decade in public office and an Associated Press review of his answers to a questionnaire show positions changing in smaller ways.
Taken together, the shifts could suggest a liberal, inexperienced lawmaker gradually adjusting to the realities of what could be accomplished, first in the Illinois Legislature and then the U.S. Senate.
On the other hand, political rivals could accuse him of abandoning potentially unpopular views or of trying to disguise his real positions.
Take the death penalty.
In 1996, when he was running for a seat in the Illinois Senate, Obama's campaign filled out a questionnaire flatly stating that he did not support capital punishment. By 2004, his position was that he supported the death penalty ``in theory'' but felt the system was so flawed that a national moratorium on executions was required.
Today, he doesn't talk about a moratorium and says the death penalty is appropriate for ``some crimes - mass murder, the rape and murder of a child - so heinous that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage.''
Then there's another crime-related issue, gun control.
That 1996 questionnaire asked whether he supported banning the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns in Illinois. The campaign's answer was straightforward: ``Yes.'' Eight years later, he said on another questionnaire that ``a complete ban on handguns is not politically practicable'' but reasonable restrictions should be imposed.
His legislative record in Illinois shows strong support for gun restrictions, such as limiting handgun purchases to one a month, but no attempts to ban them. Today, he stands by his support for controls while trying to reassure hunters that he has no interest in interfering with their access to firearms.
Obama's presidential campaign contends that voters can't learn anything about his views from the 1996 questionnaire, which was for an Illinois good-government group known as the IVI-IPO. Aides say Obama did not fill out the questionnaire and instead it was handled by a staffer who misrepresented his views on gun control, the death penalty and more.
``Barack Obama has a consistent record on the key issues facing our country,'' said spokesman Ben LaBolt. ``Even conservative columnists have said they'd scoured Obama's record for inconsistencies and found there were virtually none.''
IVI-IPO officials say it's inconceivable that Obama would have let a staffer turn in a questionnaire with incorrect answers. The group interviewed Obama in person about his answers before endorsing him in that 1996 legislative race, and he didn't suggest then, or anytime since, that the questionnaire needed to be corrected, they said.
Since he came to Washington, one piece of legislation that raises questions is the USA Patriot Act, the security measure approved after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
When he ran for the Senate, Obama called the act a ``shoddy and dangerous law'' that should be replaced. After he took office, the Senate considered an update that Obama criticized as only a modest improvement and one that was inferior to other alternatives.
Still, Obama ended up voting for that renewal and update of the Patriot Act.
Another disputed issue is health care.
Obama was asked in the 1996 questionnaire whether he supported a single-payer health plan, in which everyone gets health coverage through a single government program. The response was, ``Yes in principle,'' and probably best to have the federal government set up such a program instead of the state.
Today, health care is a hot issue, and Obama does not support creating a single government program for everyone. In fact, rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards have criticized his health proposal for potentially leaving millions of people uninsured because they wouldn't be forced to buy insurance.
Political analysts don't see much danger for Obama in the changes. They aren't major shifts akin to Republican Mitt Romney's changes on abortion and gun control, so voters aren't likely to see the senator as indecisive or calculating.
``I think they allow for some adjustment,'' said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. ``It depends on whether they're changing the core of what they're about.''
In the general election, the Republican nominee would be more likely to go after the first-term senator on another front.
``If Obama is the Democratic candidate, I don't think the Republicans will be attacking him on a particular issue,'' said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. ``They'd be attacking him on his experience.''
Obama's Democratic opponents, concerned about turning off voters who dislike negative campaigning, haven't been aggressively using his shifts against him. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign does quietly argue that they amount to a pattern that should concern the public.
Clinton spokesman Phil Singer noted Obama's positions on handguns, health care and the Patriot Act. ``Voters will ultimately decide whether these are significant shifts in his views or not,'' he said.
One area where Obama's campaign acknowledges his views have changed is on the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages. In January 2004, Obama said he was opposed to repealing the law. By February, one month later, he supported a repeal.
His campaign says Obama always thought the Defense of Marriage Act was a bad law but didn't believe it needed to be repealed. After hearing from gay friends how hurtful the law was, he decided it needed to be taken off the books.
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