Final Debate Points

All Iraq, all the time. That's how the last two presidential debates have come across, even in Friday's town hall forum, which at least included several questions on domestic issues.

That impression is due to the way the debates were set up (the first one on foreign affairs, as well as half of the second one), to current news, and to polls showing Iraq a top concern among voters.

As critical as Iraq is, however, viewers are sure to appreciate that Wednesday night's final face-off in Tempe, Ariz., is supposed to be centered on domestic topics.

In Friday's debate, the candidates mostly just skimmed the surface on such weighty issues as the environment, healthcare reform, education, taxes, the national budget deficit, and jobs. Other issues await, including energy and social security.

Viewers deserve not only a thorough discussion of these subjects, but accurate and direct answers from the candidates - not always the case in the debates thus far.

Last week, both Bush and Kerry repeated stock answers that had already been reported as mistakes. For instance, Kerry claimed that 1.6 million jobs had been lost under Bush. According to the Annenberg School of Public Policy's factcheck.org, that was misleading: "The economy is still down by 1.6 million private sector jobs since Bush took office, but the drop in total payroll employment [which includes government jobs]...is down by much less than that - 821,000."

For his part, Bush claimed that Kerry voted 98 times to "raise taxes." Factcheck.org says the Bush campaign is including 43 Kerry votes for budget measures that "merely set targets for taxes without actually legislating changes." And it's counting multiple votes Kerry made on the same bills.

Though politicians commonly avoid answering some difficult questions and use the time instead to pontificate about something else, both men should work to answer the moderator, Bob Schieffer, in a straightforward manner Wednesday night. Some Missouri citizens in last week's town-hall debate clearly were given short shrift.

Wednesday evening's face-to-face is the last chance for voters to see the candidates in a forum outside the usual setting of adoring campaign crowds. Even with their flaws, the debates have lent more clarity to the campaign than the tidal wave of distorted TV ads and campaign spin. An informed electorate (and 6 percent of likely voters are still undecided) requires nothing less than honest, direct answers.

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