Do politicians place a premium on telling the truth?

Do words matter?

You’ll hear thousands of them in tonight’s final presidential candidate debate — to go with the millions you have already heard or read from John McCain and Barack Obama, their running mates, their surrogates — words that tumble, roll and ricochet in your family room, at your workplace, inside your head.

And perhaps you are left with a nagging suspicion that many of the words you hear in debates, speeches and ads are not actually, um, true.

Campaigns know you feel that way. In fact, the great argument of the 2008 cycle — among political consultants and their customers — is whether the truth really matters any more.

“Most of my clients … are shocked when I tell them voters start from the proposition they are liars,” said longtime political consultant Martin Hamburger.

His colleagues, he says, have similar views.

Writes Amy Sullivan in Time: “Candidates simply don’t suffer for making false claims, unless those claims become part of a narrative that casts them as untrustworthy. Even then they often choose to keep running the offending ads, knowing full well that the power of a 30-second spot will always outweigh media oversight.”

That skepticism, some experts think, runs deeper this year than the usual concern about distortions, misleading facts and the half-true claims about opponents and their positions. Those have been a part of presidential politics since that brutal John Adams-Thomas Jefferson tilt back in 1800.

But this time, they say, campaigns have decided to continue making false claims even after they have been discredited.

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