The presidential race is a genuine dead heat. Mitt Romney could very well win if Obama doesn’t perform well in the remaining debates. Romney enjoyed a genuine post-debate surge and polling guru types say his bump is durable. That said, the new Post/ABC News poll suggests a few things about what Romney didn’t accomplish at the debate, too.

The Post poll finds Obama leading Romney by 49-46 among likely voters, a dead heat, and by 50-43 among registered voters — both basically unchanged since before the Denver showdown. It shows Romney’s image has improved significantly, at least in a general sense: More than twice as many people say their opinions of Romney improved since before his strong debate performance.

But here are the things Romney’s debate performance did not change:

* Obama still has a large lead on who better understands people’s economic problems, 51-40 — virtually unchanged since before the debate.

* Sixty eight percent say Obama does more for the middle class than the wealthy, while only 31 percent say Romney would favor the middle class, versus 58 percent who say he’d favor the wealthy. Those numbers, too, are virtually unchanged.

* Obama’s advantage on who is more trusted to handle Medicare has actually gone up, from 47-43 to 53-38. This was a major topic at both debates, and recall that Joe Biden made a strong appeal to voters to trust their “instincts” on who is better for the program.

* Obama holds a slight edge on who is more trusted to handle the economy, 48-44 — with no movement toward Romney since before the debates. In this poll, Romney has not regained the advantage on the economy he had enjoyed before the conventions wiped it out.

This is only one poll, so it’s hard to draw firm conclusions from it, but it is not the first to find this pattern. Last week’s NYT/CBS polls showed very little change on the “empathy” and “middle class” questions in Virginia and Wisconsin.

As I’ve been saying, we should keep an eye on whether Romney’s debate performances correct his “47 percent problem,” i.e., perceptions that he is indifferent to the needs of ordinary people and that his policies would prioritize the interests of the rich over the middle class. In this poll, at least, that hasn’t happened yet, despite voters having generally improved views of Romney and saying overwhelmingly that Romney won the debate. Why is this happening? One possibility, suggested to me by Priorities USA pollster Geoff Garin, is that the swing states have been so saturated by relentless advertising and campaigning that perceptions of the two candidates, Romney in particular, are pretty much unshakable.

By the way, this may not be enough to deny Romney victory. And tomorrow’s debate, which has a town hall format, gives Romney another shot at undoing his 47 percent problem. But if he doesn’t, it could still prove to be a major factor. And time is running out.

* Obama campaign makes case on economy: The Obama campaign has released a new ad in Colorado, Iowa, Nevada and Virginia that makes a surprisingly bullish case that the economy is getting better, something Dems had warned against doing, because it risks alienating swing voters who aren’t feeling the recovery yet:

The new Post poll suggests why the Obama camp feels comfortable going here: It finds that 52 percent give him credit for unemployment dropping to 7.8 percent. So expect more of this.

* Obama campaign pre-spins debate: The Obama camp is also out with a new memo anticipating the major claims Romney will make tomorrow night and debunking them in advance. The memo suggests the Obama camp hopes the debate will draw a very sharp contrast with Romney on taxes, the 47 percent, and who will really look out for the middle class’ interests. Of course, it’s on Obama himself to drive that contrast home tomorrow night.

* Obama taking debate prep far more seriously: A nice glimpse into Obama’s debate prep sessions from Helene Cooper, who notes that Obama is working hard on how to project more passion about his own vision for the country’s future and the big choice the American people face. All the handwringing about Biden’s smirks aside, that was one area where Biden excelled, and Cooper reports that Obama is taking cues from Biden’s performance as he seeks to correct his own.

* Town hall debate a good format for Romney? Scott Conroy games out whether tomorrow’s debate format is suited to Romney’s strengths and shortcomings as a candidate. It obviously favors candidates who are better at connecting with average Americans, but I would not be surprised if Romney puts in a very strong performance tomorrow.

* Obama seen as more honest and trustworthy: Good point from Chris Cillizza: The new Post poll shows that Obama holds a significant edge, and a smaller one among independents, on who is seen as more honest and trustworthy, something Obama can exploit at tomorrow’s debate:

Given the Post-ABC poll numbers, Obama would do well to highlight when and how he believes Romney is bending the truth or shaping facts to his advantage and then directly appeal to the public with some sort of, “Who are you going to believe; me or him?” question.


* Why Romney continues to dissemble about his health plan: Paul Krugman gets to the heart of it: Because many Americans would likely find the truth about his actual health care agenda to be unacceptable:

So let’s be brutally honest here. The Romney-Ryan position on health care is that many millions of Americans must be denied health insurance, and millions more deprived of the security Medicare now provides, in order to save money. At the same time, of course, Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan are proposing trillions of dollars in tax cuts for the wealthy. So a literal description of their plan is that they want to expose many Americans to financial insecurity, and let some of them die, so that a handful of already wealthy people can have a higher after-tax income.

It’s not a pretty picture — and you can see why Mr. Romney chooses not to see it.

This is why Romney continues falsely telling big audiences that he would cover people with preexisting conditions (which his aides later walk back when only reporters are listening). Obama needs to expose this tomorrow, and to draw this same link between the potential real world consequences of Romney’s proposals and his plan to cut taxes disproportionately on the rich.

* It’s the policies, stupid: E.J. Dionne notes that the reason Romney keeps changing his policies based on whatever audience he is addressing is that his actual proposals would likely be rejected by the American mainstream if he were candid about them:

Obama doesn’t have to look angry or agitated in this week’s debate. He simply needs to invite voters to see that Romney, the product, will give them no clue as to what Romney, the person, might do as president. Romney keeps changing the packaging because he knows that the policies inside the box are not what voters are looking for.

* And Rosie Perez mocks Romney: The Obama-allied American Bridge releases an entertaining video of Rosie Perez mocking Romney’s claim that he’d have an easier time winning the presidency if he were descendant from Latinos. As she puts it: “Unfortunately for you, Mitt, you were cursed with the hard-knock life of growing up as the son of a wealthy governor and auto executive.”

And this kicker speaks for itself: “The reason why Latinos aren’t voting for you is that your policies suck.”

What else?