WASHINGTON — Now it gets interesting.

Ever since Vice President Richard Nixon’s sweaty encounter against the smooth-talking Sen. John F. Kennedy in the first televised presidential debates in 1960, the face-offs have proven crucial to who gets elected.

Voters will get their first chance tonight to see President Bush square off with Democratic rival Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in the first of three televised debates scheduled this heated election year, which is entering its final stretch with Bush holding a small lead in most polls.

Seeing the candidates tangle over issues in the 90-minute debates is key to convincing the all-important undecideds and the so-called “persuadable” voters who are tentative about their candidate choice, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

However, it’s impossible to forecast whether Kerry, who on his feet is “strong on substance,” or Bush, who “is much stronger in making a personal connection,” has an edge, Sabato said. The narrow slice of voters who say they are undecided — accounting for less than 10 percent of the electorate in a dozen closely contested states, including the first debate’s location, Florida — is expected to decide the presidential race.

“One thing we have to realize is these so-called swing voters haven’t yet really paid attention to the election,” said Paul Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland. “The issues are important. But just as important is how the candidates handle themselves, how they answer questions, and imagery and style.”

The first televised debate, at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, will focus on foreign policy, including the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism. The candidates will be seated, according to terms negotiated by the candidates’ camps.

The next debate on Oct. 8 in St. Louis will be open to any topic and cast in a more informal town-hall format, where candidates may stand and walk about while answering questions. The last debate on Oct. 13 in Tempe, Ariz., returns to the seated format and will focus on the economy and domestic policy. A vice presidential debate between incumbent Dick Cheney and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards is set for Tuesday at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

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