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As Campaign Heats Up, Untruths Can Become Facts Before They're Undone

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

From the moment Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin declared that she had opposed the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," critics, the news media and nonpartisan fact checkers have called it a fabrication or, at best, a half-truth. But yesterday in Lebanon, Ohio, and again in Lancaster, Pa., she crossed that bridge again.

"I told Congress: 'Thanks but no thanks for that Bridge to Nowhere up in Alaska,' " Palin told the crowds at the "McCain Street USA" rallies. "If we wanted a bridge, we'll build it ourselves."

Palin's position on the bridge that would have linked Ketchikan to Gravina Island is one example of a candidate staying on message even when that message has been publicly discredited. Palin has continued to say she opposed a project she once campaigned for -- then killed later, only after support for it had collapsed in Congress.

As the presidential campaign moves into a final, heated stretch, untrue accusations and rumors have started to swirl at a pace so quick that they become regarded as fact before they can be disproved. A number of fabrications about Palin's policies and personal life, for instance, have circulated on the Internet since she joined the Republican ticket.

Palin and John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee, have been more aggressive in recent days in repeating what their opponents say are outright lies. Almost every day, for instance, McCain says rival Barack Obama would raise everyone's taxes, even though the Democrat's tax plan exempts families that earn less than $250,000.

Fed up, the Obama campaign broke a taboo on Monday and used the "L-word" of politics to say that the McCain campaign was lying about the Bridge to Nowhere.

Nevertheless, with McCain's standing in the polls surging, aides say he is not about to back down from statements he believes are fundamentally true, such as the anecdote about the bridge.

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers noted an Obama advertisement released yesterday that says, with no citation, that McCain's economic plan would take money away from public schools. "Absolutely, it's a lie," Rogers said.

Quoting the National Education Association, Obama aides said McCain's plan to freeze discretionary spending would cut funding for local education agencies, Head Start, teacher quality grants and special education.

John Feehery, a Republican strategist, said the campaign is entering a stage in which skirmishes over the facts are less important than the dominant themes that are forming voters' opinions of the candidates.

"The more the New York Times and The Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is, because there's a bigger truth out there and the bigger truths are she's new, she's popular in Alaska and she is an insurgent," Feehery said. "As long as those are out there, these little facts don't really matter."

For now, there appears to be little political reason to back down. A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken Sept. 5 to Sept. 7 found that 51 percent of voters think Obama would raise their taxes, even though his plan would actually cut taxes for the overwhelming majority of Americans. Obama has proposed eliminating income taxes on seniors making less than $50,000 a year, but 41 percent of those seniors say their income taxes would go up in an Obama administration.

McCain's pitch as a reformer -- especially as an opponent of pork-barrel spending -- does not seem to have been damaged by media reports of his running mate's pursuit of earmarks, first for her home town of Wasilla and then for Alaska. Obama's once-sizable 32-point advantage on which candidate would do more to change government is down to 12 points.

"We have created a system where there is not a lot of shame in stretching the truth," said Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

A slew of distortions that have spread through e-mail and on the Internet has also put Palin on the receiving end of some of that truth-stretching -- so much so that the campaign dispatched a group of supporters yesterday to act as a "truth-squadding team." The unfounded charges include that Palin cut special-needs funding in Alaska and that she was a member of the Alaska Independence Party.

Palin actually increased special-needs funding and has never been a member of the Alaska Independence Party, according to FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Aside from the dispute over the Bridge to Nowhere, the Obama campaign has also complained about a McCain advertisement that says the Democrat called Iran a "tiny" threat, even though a chorus of media critics noted that Obama had listed Iran with Cuba and Venezuela as countries whose menace was tiny compared with that of the former Soviet Union. On Friday, in Cedarburg, Wis., McCain repeated that Palin had sold Alaska's state jet on eBay, although Palin herself was careful during her vice presidential acceptance speech to say she merely "put it on eBay." It did not sell on the online auction site.

McCain aides said yesterday that nothing they have said about the bridge is untrue.

Palin did at one time support the Bridge to Nowhere, and the $223 million earmarked for the project was sent to Alaska. Some of it was used for other state projects, about $40 million was used to build an access road to the now-scrapped bridge project and $73 million is sitting in an account, awaiting some other proposal to link the tiny towns of Ketchikan and Gravina, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation.

But, McCain aides said, Palin indisputably turned on a project championed by two of her state's Republican legends, Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young. Even Alaska Democrats gave her credit for finally ending it.

"We're not relitigating the 2006 gubernatorial campaign and everything that was said," Rogers said. "We're not talking about that campaign. Were talking about when she got into office and what she did."

The claim that Obama will raise taxes is based on his support this year of a Democratic budget resolution that envisions all of President Bush's cuts expiring on schedule in 2011, a move that would indeed raise rates for everyone who pays income taxes. Such resolutions are nonbinding and irrelevant in future years, such as 2011, because budgets are passed annually. Moreover, this year's budget runs counter to Obama's tax plan, which would extend all of Bush's tax cuts for families earning less than $250,000 and provide new tax breaks for low-income workers.

Obama and the Democratic National Committee asserted for months that McCain wanted to keep U.S. troops fighting in Iraq for 100 years, when, in fact, the context of McCain's 100-year statement was a comparison to U.S. bases in Japan and Germany. McCain explicitly said the troops would be there only if the country was at peace and there were no casualties associated with their presence.

A McCain quote Obama has often used -- that the economy is fundamentally sound -- is months old. Since he said that, McCain has said almost daily that the economy is struggling. As for exaggerations, Obama said yesterday that he had supported a measure in the Illinois Senate to double the number of charter schools in Chicago. In fact, he was one of 14 state senators co-sponsoring a non-controversial measure that passed unanimously.

Staff writer Michael D. Shear, traveling with the McCain campaign, contributed to this report.

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