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October 3, 2012 12:10 am

POLITICAL JOURNALISTS are counting the minutes until the premiere tonight of The Debates. Will President Obama administer a rhetorical coup de grâce to Mitt Romney's presidential bid? Will Mr. Romney forensically wipe the floor with the prez?

Theater is entertaining, but the crucial event of the election may occur a day and a half after the microphones in Denver are switched off--on Friday morning, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics issues data on September job creation.

So says Robert Reich, secretary of labor under Bill Clinton. In August, the nation gained a disappointing 96,000 jobs. If the September number were, say, double that or more, Mr. Obama could claim with a straight face that his employment policies were working. But if the September job tally fell sharply, Mr. Romney could plausibly argue that America was on a path of sorrow.

Robert Reich sees little cause for optimism. The economy is growing at a paltry 1.3 percent annual rate; consumer spending in August rose just 0.1 percent; orders for durable goods dropped 13 percent ("the biggest monthly drop in three years"); and disposable income fell 0.3 percent ("the weakest reading since November").

Make no mistake, Mr. Reich is a confirmed "demand-sider": He believes in putting more dollars in the hands of the economic middle and lower classes, not the wealthy, and he thinks that Mr. Romney's economic prescriptions would only make things worse.

But the pain now being endured by many hardworking Americans who cannot find a place to ply their skills is tragic. And that tragedy may be the theater the American electorate, if not the media, finds most compelling.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.