WASHINGTON — The location and dates of the crucial 2012 US presidential election debates between Democratic incumbent Barack Obama and a yet-to-be-determined Republican challenger were announced on Monday.

The first of the three face-to-face encounters between Obama and his Republican challenger will be on October 3 at the University of Denver, Colorado, the Commission on Presidential Debates said.

The final two debates are scheduled less than a week apart: October 16 at Hofstra University in New York state and October 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. Voters go to the polls just two weeks later on November 6.

Republicans choose their nominee in party primaries beginning in early 2012. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is considered the front-runner, ahead of businessman Herman Cain and Texas Governor Rick Perry.

Vice President Joe Biden will get one chance only to duel it out with whoever the Republican nominee selects as his or her running-mate, on October 11 at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.

The sour US economy threatens Obama's reelection bid and earlier this month the president described himself as the "underdog" in 2012.

The battle for the Republican nomination begins in earnest on January 3 with the Iowa Caucus. A win in the farming state can provide momentum for a lesser-known contender or confirm front-runner status.