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The last debate strengthened Mitt Romney's support with many groups, including the one we'll discuss next. A bipartisan poll of rural voters in nine battleground states shows Romney increasing his lead with that group whose votes are vital to the GOP. Here's NPR's Howard Berkes.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: It may seem counterintuitive, but voters in the least populated places make a big difference on Election Day says Republican pollster Dan Judy.

DAN JUDY: What Republican candidates need to do is to rack up big margins in rural areas in order to offset smaller margins in urban and suburban areas. Mitt Romney really needs to be at 60 percent or above.

BERKES: And in a survey last month in rural counties in battleground states, Romney was about six points short. Dan Judy was part of a new bipartisan survey team which was out again last week.

JUDY: Now, he's leading 59 to 37 percent and what you've seen in almost all of the swing states that we've surveyed in this poll is Mitt Romney either drawing even with Barack Obama, or even in some states, taking the lead where he had been trailing consistently before.

BERKES: The survey included 600 voters in rural counties in three critical battleground states, Ohio, Virginia and Florida, as well as North Carolina, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada. Dan Judy says the surge for Romney is tied to the first presidential debate and Democratic polling partner Anna Greenberg agrees.

ANNA GREENBERG: Voters in rural areas were holding back from Mitt Romney, for a variety of reasons, ranging from more conservative voters not being very high on him to the perception of him as an elite and out of touch. The debate went a long way to making rural voters feel much more comfortable in the way they were comfortable with George Bush.

BERKES: Watching the debate was 31-year-old Sarah Sajuan, a physical therapist assistant in Paulding, Ohio, who shares Romney's social values. But there was that video dismissing what Romney called the 47 percent of Americans dependent upon government.

SARAH SAJUAN: I didn't like the negativity of the unimportant Americans. And the reason why I liked Obama, before the debate I thought he was a stronger person and would stand up for what he believes in. But after that debate, it really made me question Obama's, maybe, his authority.

BERKES: But she sure liked what she saw from Mitt Romney that night.

SAJUAN: His strength and his voice and just his appearance.

BERKES: So when pollsters called her last week, Sajuan said she'd vote Republican for president, but when we talked yesterday, she said she might change her mind. Still, most in the rural voter survey seemed firm, with close to 60 percent, a landslide proportion choosing Mitt Romney. Republican pollster, Dan Judy.

JUDY: They're 85 percent white, 50 percent conservative, only 15 percent liberal, almost two-thirds of them attend church at least a couple of times a month. And so these really are Republican base voters. And so I think this is a case of them coming home. I doubt you're going to see a wild swing in the last three weeks unless something very, very big shakes up the race.

BERKES: Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg says Romney's gargantuan rural battleground lead does not mean hope is lost for the president.

GREENBERG: If you make sure every single one of your voters comes out to vote in the urban areas and you have an edge in suburban, I think you can survive this kind of loss in rural areas.

BERKES: But she and Republican Dan Judy agree that other candidates in battleground states could be affected by a rural landslide for Romney.

GREENBERG: The challenge for Democrats is it makes it a little bit harder to win Senate races in rural states, to win Congressional districts.

JUDY: And in these swing states, there are a lot of very, very close Senate races and whoever is able to prevail in these swing states will likely bring along enough Senate candidates to give his party control of the Senate.

BERKES: And compared to the actual rural vote in these battleground states four years ago, President Obama is down 10 points among the rural people who help elect him. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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