SIDNEY, Ohio (AP) - The crowds tell the story. As Election Day nears, Mitt Romney is drawing larger and more-excited throngs.
Look to dusty Iowa cornfields, rain-soaked Virginia parks, the muddy fields of the Shelby County Fairgrounds, where a crowd of 9,500 - almost half of this western Ohio town - gathered among the barns and stables on a frigid October evening this week to glimpse the Republican presidential contender.
"Where else would we want to be?" said one of the shivering faithful, Judy Cartwright, a 71-year-old nurse from Sidney. "I want to see the next president of the United States."
Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., applauds as his running mate, Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event Friday in Lancaster, Ohio.
Romney's debate performance against President Barack Obama last week - and his energetic appearances following it up - have fueled a rise in enthusiasm on the campaign trail.
In Virginia, for example, Republican-leaning counties appear to be getting the fastest start on absentee voting ahead of Election Day. State Board of Elections data analyzed by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit group tracker of money in state politics, shows that of the 25 localities where absentee voting is busiest, 21 voted Republican in the 2008 presidential race. And of the 25 localities where absentee balloting is the slowest so far, 16 supported Obama.
Romney seems to be feeding off the energy pumping through his sprawling crowds, even as aides downplay the increased momentum among the GOP base.
"I'm overwhelmed by the number of people here," he exulted while scanning the sea of supporters packed beyond the fairgrounds fences here. "There are even people out there - that's another county over there."
Romney's crowd growth comes as new polls indicate he has erased Obama's advantage in voter support nationally.
The president's challenge on the campaign trail this year has been to match the high excitement bar he set in 2008. But recent polling suggests the "enthusiasm gap," long thought to lean toward Obama, has leveled off.
The Pew Research Center poll this week found that 68 percent of registered voters who back Obama support him strongly. Some 67 percent of Romney voters are strongly behind him. That's the first time Pew's poll has found the two candidates even on this measure.
And a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted after the Oct. 3 debate showed the GOP nominee drawing "strongly favorable" reviews from 62 percent of Republicans, the highest level of deeply positive views that poll has found during the campaign. Overall, Romney's favorability among Republicans stands at 87 percent. Obama draws favorable views from 93 percent of Democrats, including 68 percent who hold strongly favorable views.
Obama can still turn out big crowds. As the election draws close, the president is appearing in college settings where he can depend on the enthusiasm of younger supporters. Within the past nine days, he has spoken before 30,000 people at the University of Wisconsin, 15,000 at Ohio State University and 9,200 at the University of Miami.
But in 2008, to note one example, he drew 100,000 people to a single rally in Denver in late October. And this year's campaign audiences, like Obama himself, seem to vary in their enthusiasm. The students who filled a field at Ohio State on Tuesday were supportive but hardly buzzing when Obama implored them to vote.
The level of enthusiasm matters as each side tries to get as many of its supporters to the polls as possible. A big Republican enthusiasm advantage two years ago helped the GOP capture control of the House of Representatives in addition to making huge gains in statehouses across the nation.