ANALYSIS:On Debate Eve, A Dead Heat

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The stakes for tomorrow night's presidential debate keep getting higher.

The results of a new ABC News-Washington Post poll released this morning, on the eve of the second of three face-to-face meetings between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, shows a race that, just over 20 days out, is as about as close as they come.

Nationally, likely voters are split — with 49 percent who say they would vote for Obama compared to 46 percent who say they would vote for Romney if the election were today. The three-point difference is within the survey's margin of error.

Two big headlines from the poll, according to ABC News Pollster Gary Langer:

Strong enthusiasm among Romney's supporters has soared from 26 percent five months ago to 59 percent in today's poll, including an 11-point gain in just the past two weeks. In fact, enthusiasm for Romney is a whopping 30 points higher than for Republican presidential candidate John McCain four year ago.

Although half of registered voters — 42 percent –say the country is headed in the "right direction," that number is up by 13 percentage points since late August. The "right direction" number is no worse now than it was at about this time in 2004, when George W. Bush overcame majority discontent to win a second term. Similarly, Obama's job approval rating, 50 percent among all adults, matches Bush's then.

As ABC News Political Director Amy Walter points out, the real message of the poll is this:

Romney's performance at the first debate in Denver fired up his base and gave wavering voters a reason to take a second look.

But, improvement in voters perception of the economy — and the fact that they don't think Romney would provide better stewardship of it (likely voters divide, 48-47 percent, on which candidate they trust more to handle the economy, Obama or Romney) — means that the Romney's campaign's overwhelming focus on fiscal issues may prove to be a mistake.

"Rising enthusiasm and declining anxiety mark an energy boost among Mitt Romney's supporters since he prevailed in the first presidential debate," Langer notes. "But a persistent sense he'd favor the wealthy, combined with easing discontent with the nation's direction, provide a retort for Barack Obama, raising the stakes for their second showdown this week."

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