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Editorial: Fact checking the presidential debate

When President Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney start to debate tonight at 9 p.m., Americans across this bitterly divided land might join together in a collective sigh of relief that the pre-debate pontificating will at last be over. The pundits will have had their say on questions of strategy and style: Who will do the best job of appearing relaxed yet forceful, well-prepared but not overly rehearsed, smart but not smug? Who will have the best zingers? Who needs to win the most?

There’s no shortage of topics for moderator Jim Lehrer to raise with both men during the 90-minute debate, which will focus on domestic issues.

With unemployment still above 8 percent — as it has been for the past three years across the country — the economy and jobs should be issue No. 1. We hope each candidate will be pressed for specifics about his proposals to strengthen what is still a tough job market for millions of Americans.

We’d also like to see both candidates pressed on government spending, especially for budget-busting programs like Medicare and Medicaid and defense. Gov. Romney should be asked to offer more specifics about his plans for tax cuts and deductions than he has so far. Obama should be asked to explain why he walked away from the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Commission regarding the nation’s fiscal mess — and he should explain what concrete steps he favors instead.

After the debate is over, each side will predictably claim victory. But many voters may be still be left wondering: How much of what the candidates said was actually true — or at least wasn’t patently false? How well do Obama and Romney’s claims stand up to scrutiny?

For those who want to go beyond what the spin doctors say, here are a few online options to consider:

FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan website that evaluates candidates’ statements.

PolitiFact.com, a website run by the Tampa Bay Times, says it plans extensive debate coverage about claims and counterclaims made during the debate.

• “The Fact Checker,” a Washington Post blog by Glenn Kessler, examines statements made by candidates in ads, speeches and debates. The site includes background information and context for its conclusions.

Bear in mind, one person’s impartial fact-checker may be another’s idea of a partisan hack. But the above-mentioned websites all seem to make a good-faith effort to carefully report candidates’ claims, the facts they’re based on and whether they hold up. They’re a good place to start.

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