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Sorting out the truth in politics

PolitiFact: Previewing the Tampa GOP presidential debate

TAMPA — The Republican candidates for president gather tonight to debate in Tampa, PolitiFact's home turf. We'll be there for this, their 18th faceoff.

What will they say?

We've watched and fact-checked debates 1 through 17 and can tell you the candidates have their favorite talking points and attack lines. And they've, well, started to repeat themselves.

Here, we present a candidate-by-candidate guide to what Floridians might hear, with a special emphasis on the repeated statements that don't match up with the facts.

Mitt Romney

Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, saves his harshest attack lines not for his fellow Republicans but for President Barack Obama. He has said several times that Obama has traveled around the world apologizing for America, and that thanks to Obama's economic policies, "We're inches away from no longer having a free economy."

His claim for presidential apologies, however, is at odds with Obama's actual statements. We read through Obama's speeches and public remarks while traveling abroad but could not find a statement that included the words "sorry" or "apologize." Instead, Obama's remarks contained some criticism of past U.S. actions, but those passages were typically balanced by praise for American ideals, and Obama mentioned how other countries have erred as well. We've rated Romney's statement Pants on Fire.

The claim that the United States is "inches away from no longer having a free economy" also lacks evidence. Economic data show the federal government has a large influence on the overall economy, but there is little indication that the government's role has risen enough in recent years to threaten the free market under which the United States has operated. International comparisons show that the United States ranks both low in total tax burden and high in economic freedom. Conservative think tanks that rank countries for economic freedom still place the United States in the top tier. We rated Romney's statement Pants on Fire.

On the domestic front, Romney has had to defend himself from charges that the Massachusetts health care law was the model for Obama's national health care law. Such charges are accurate — the federal law is very much like the state law. Romney defends himself, though, by pointing out that people in Massachusetts like the state plan "by about a 3 to 1 margin." We found polls over several years support that claim, and we rated it True.

Newt Gingrich

Gingrich received thunderous applause in South Carolina when he defended himself against criticism for calling Obama the "best food stamp president in American history," a comment many saw as racially loaded. We checked Gingrich's defense, that, "More people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history." We rated that Half True: More people are on food stamps, but Obama's policies didn't contribute to that. The surge is due to a combination of economic problems Obama inherited and long-standing policy changes that expanded access to the program. The policies began under President George W. Bush.

Gingrich also likes to take credit for balanced budgets during the administration of President Bill Clinton, when Gingrich was speaker of the House. "I balanced the budget for four straight years, paid off $405 billion in debt," Gingrich has said. We rated that statement False. Gingrich was speaker for only two of the four years in question, and the debt actually increased during his speakership.

Rick Santorum

Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, continues to make the case that he has the most consistently conservative track record. He particularly has criticized Romney for signing onto the Massachusetts health care plan that became the national model.

But Santorum has erred when he claimed Romney tried to cover up his record on health care. "It was in your book that (the Massachusetts plan) should be for everybody," Santorum told Romney. "You took it out of your book," he added.

Santorum was talking about Romney's book No Apology, which was released in 2010 and then rereleased with changes as a paperback. We compared the two versions and found Romney made only minor changes to his comments on health care, mostly to account for the fact that the national plan had become law. We rated Santorum's statement Mostly False.

Santorum also often argues that social issues and economic issues are connected. He has taken credit for promoting welfare reform during the Clinton administration and has said that as a result, "poverty levels went down to the lowest level ever for … African-American children." We rated that Half True. Poverty levels did go down for black children after welfare reform, but some experts gave the credit to an expanding economy, not to welfare reform itself. The connection between welfare reform and poverty remains controversial.

Ron Paul

We've found few instances of Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul repeating factually inaccurate talking points.

Paul, for instance, has been on firm ground when discussing the magnitude of U.S. foreign policy commitments. The U.S. military "is in 130 countries. We have 900 bases around the world," Paul has said. Paul is largely on track, but some of the "bases" he cites are just a few leased buildings. Still, we rated his statement Mostly True.

Read the full fact-checks of all of these items at Staff writers Louis Jacobson, Molly Moorhead and Becky Bowers contributed to this report.

GOP debate tonight

When/where: 9 p.m., USF Tampa.

Hosts: Tampa Bay Times, NBC News, National Journal and the Florida Council of 100.

Moderators: NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, with a panel including Times political editor Adam C. Smith.

Watch it: On NBC or streamed live on No public tickets are available.

Live fact-checking: We'll provide play-by-play of the night with live tweets courtesy of the staff from @PolitiFact and @PolitiFactFL. While you're watching, tweet your debate reactions to @PoliticsTBTimes and we'll feature the best insights in our digital coverage on

Watch party: The USF Student Government is hosting a Debate Watch Party at USF Tampa on the western end of the Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza lawn. The party opens to guests at 7:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

PolitiFact: Previewing the Tampa GOP presidential debate 01/22/12 [Last modified: Sunday, January 22, 2012 9:26pm]
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