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Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney left Texas Gov. Rick Perry speak during Republican presidential debate Tuesday Oct.

Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry speak during a Republican presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

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Updated: October 11, 2012 6:09AM

There are just 57 excruciating days until Election Day. Four may be pivotal. On four evenings in October, American voters will get their best and last chance to judge the presidential nominees.

For many American voters this summer, the livin’ hasn’t been easy. The new jobs report from the U.S. Labor Department posted an unemployment rate that has topped 8 percent for more than 40 months. Voters are raising their heads from the daily grind and finally focusing on the big decision.

The debates are the last remaining venues for spontaneous, unscripted, gloves-off encounters between the men who would be president.

Since Richard Nixon’s pale, sweaty brow gifted John F. Kennedy in 1960, televised debates have had a big impact on the presidential contests.

Nixon should have worn makeup, clucked the pundits of the era. In this razor-close election, no makeup will obscure every word, gesture, wrinkle and wink on the debate stage.

Just a sliver of the nation is undecided, the polls show. Next month, they will be on the couch, eyeing their flat screens for wisdom and answers.

The non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which is overseeing the festivities, has scheduled debates on Oct. 3, 16, and 22. Another debate between the vice presidential hopefuls is slotted for Oct. 11.

All summer, the campaigns and their allies shelled out hundreds of millions for TV ads aimed at demolishing the enemy, yet the race is still stalled in a virtual tie nationwide, and too close to call in key swing states.

Voters have tuned out the blather. They are looking to an unvarnished, unedited arena where the politicians won’t be able to get away with spin, obfuscation and orchestration.

The public appetite has been whetted by the 20 or so televised debates that dominated the Republican primary season. They drew more than 7 million viewers on some nights. Who knew that a bunch of suits could be so much fun — and revealing? Who can forget how a cocksure Texas Gov. Rick Perry forgot one of the three government bureaucracies he would eliminate? And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s eager offer to make a $10,000 bet?

This fall, the formats will be simple. No opening statements, and scarce room for grandstanding and gimmickry. In the digital age, one artful line, one idiotic gaffe at the wrong time, can transform a campaign in an Internet minute.

Our best hope is that the debaters will be forced to elucidate issues they have dodged for months. Are we really getting out of Afghanistan, and when? How much do Medicare recipients really stand to lose? Who will, and should, pay more taxes? Who has a credible job-creation plan? What will you do for the poor?

Mitt Romney spent a good chunk of last week hunkered down in debate prep. Be assured that President Barack Obama is polishing his verbal jousting skills.

Practice on, gentlemen, but know that under the lights, all things are possible, and perilous.

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