Tonight's debate between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry marks the culmination of months of campaigning, speeches and attack ads, and the clash is likely to set the tone for the remaining five weeks of the election.
Each candidate has studied briefing books and held hours of practice sessions, honing the sound bites that will best capture the attention of the millions of television viewers. For many viewers, the information will seem new, but both men have been road-testing their claims as they have barnstormed the nation, in the political equivalent of an out-of-town tryout for a Broadway show.
Many of those assertions, all carefully constructed to present the candidates' cases in the best possible light, are based on a study or report discovered by teams of campaign researchers. At first glance, a candidate's assertion may have the ring of truth. But on close examination, many of their pronouncements turn out to be exaggerated, lacking in context or wrong.
That is particularly so when each candidate is attacking his opponent's stance, such as when Bush has said Kerry would "nationalize" health care, or when Kerry has said the Iraq war has already cost $200 billion.
Both men have been highly selective when it comes to using statistics on jobs. Bush cites only the jobs created in the past year -- ignoring the overall job loss in his term -- while Kerry makes the job loss seem larger by focusing on just one segment of the economy.
Tonight's debate is supposed to focus on foreign policy, but domestic issues are likely to be raised as well, and will be the subject of later debates. Here are some of the inaccurate claims Bush and Kerry have been making on crucial issues in this election year.
The war in Iraq is likely to figure prominently in tonight's debate. The two candidates differ greatly over how the president led the nation into war, and whether Bush has handled the post-invasion diplomacy effectively. But both candidates, in essence, offer simplified and often misleading accounts.
Bush emphasizes his efforts to avert war. "I went to the United Nations, because I was hoping that diplomacy would work," he tells audiences, adding that "it is documented" that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein "systematically deceived the inspectors the United Nations sent in."
In contrast, Kerry charges: "The administration misled America, the United Nations and the world. This administration rushed to war without a plan to win the peace."
While Bush did seek U.N. approval to confront Hussein -- after sharp debate among his foreign policy advisers -- the White House very quickly gave up on the inspection process and assumed a war footing several months before the March 2003 invasion, according to administration officials. The administration rejected several compromise proposals from other nations that would have delayed an invasion and allowed inspectors to continue searching for weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons were found after the invasion, and much of the prewar intelligence the administration used to justify the invasion was later found to be wrong.
Investigations have found that many nuances or caveats about the intelligence were ignored or belittled in assembling reports on Iraq's alleged weapons. But there is little evidence the Bush administration purposely tried to deceive Americans and other world leaders about the threat posed by the alleged weapons -- and, in fact, there was a broad consensus among experts that Iraq did have at least some banned weapons.
Many of the assumptions the administration had about rebuilding Iraq after the war did turn out to be incorrect, and the administration's post-invasion plans have been revised repeatedly.
Bush has charged that Kerry has said "he prefers the stability of a dictatorship to the hope and security of democracy." But Kerry has never said that. The Bush campaign said this attack is derived from a Kerry statement that "the satisfaction that we take in [Hussein's] downfall does not hide this fact: We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure." Kerry prefaced that statement, however, by saying that while Hussein was "a brutal dictator who deserved his own special place in hell," that by itself was not a reason to go to war.
In a recent line of attack, Kerry has said the cost of Bush's "go-it-alone policy in Iraq is now $200 billion." This is an exaggeration, because it combines the amount already spent -- about $120 billion -- with money that is expected to be spent in the coming year or requested by the administration. In the past week, Kerry has modified his comments to say Bush "didn't tell America this would cost $200 billion."