BOCA RATON, Fla. — With a last aggressive debate performance behind him and 14 grueling days ahead, President Obama is now facing what he worked so hard to avoid: a neck-and-neck race with a challenger gaining ground when it matters most.
Over the last month, through the debates and a gradual moderation of the conservative tone he struck during the Republican primaries, Mitt Romney undermined the Democrats’ expensive summertime work of casting him as the candidate of and for the rich, emerging as a far more formidable opponent than Mr. Obama had ever expected.
He continued down the path of moderation here on Monday night, agreeing with Mr. Obama almost as often as he disagreed.
“For the first time in this race, I’d rather be us than them,” said Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, crediting Mr. Romney’s strength in the first debate as a critical shift in the campaign. “They spent months building him up as one thing and one night he disproved it.”
The president, aware of deepening worry among Democrats about the prospect of losing the White House, was aggressive at the debate, belittling his rival’s foreign policy experience in a bid to keep voters from seeing him as a credible commander in chief.
But Democrats could only hope the candidates’ final encounter here would level out a steady rise for Mr. Romney that has brought him to even with or leading the president in several national polls of likely voters. The race is suddenly so tight in the nine battleground states that each side is looking at a single Congressional district in Maine whose one electoral vote, in the event of an exceedingly tight outcome, could decide whether Mr. Romney or Mr. Obama is in the White House come Jan. 20.