Fluorescence depolarization decays were measured for 5-dimethylaminonaphthalene-1-sulfonyl (dansyl) probes attached internally to 17-mer.27-mer oligonucleotides bound to Klenow fragment of DNA polymerase I. The time-resolved motions of the dansyl probes were sensitive indicators of DNA-protein contacts, showing that the protein binds to DNA with two footprints, corresponding to primer termini at either the polymerase or 3'-5' exonuclease sites. We examined complexes of Klenow fragment with DNAs containing various base mismatches. Single mismatches at the primer terminus caused a 3- to 4-fold increase in the equilibrium partitioning of DNA into the exonuclease site; the largest effects were observed for purine-purine mismatches. Two or more consecutive G.G mismatches caused the DNA to bind exclusively at the exonuclease site, with a partitioning constant at least 250-fold greater than that of the corresponding matched DNA sequence. Internal single mismatches produced larger effects than the same mismatch at the primer terminus, with a delta delta G relative to the matched sequence of -1.1 to -1.3 kcal/mol for mismatches located 2, 3, or 4 bases from the primer terminus. Although part of the observed effects may be attributed to the increased melting capacity of the DNA, it appears that the polymerase site also promotes movement of DNA into the exonuclease site by rejecting aberrant primer termini. These effects suggest that the polymerase and exonuclease sites act together to recognize specific errors that distort the primer terminus, such as frameshifts, in addition to proofreading misincorporated bases.