CLEVELAND - President Barack Obama celebrated much-needed good economic news Friday as the unemployment rate dropped to its lowest level since he took office. "We are moving forward again," he boasted. Republican rival Mitt Romney retorted that the president still hasn't done enough to help millions of people who are out of work.
The figures announced by the Labor Department - 114,000 new jobs last month to bring the unemployment rate to 7.8 percent - gave Obama fresh evidence on the heels of his disappointing debate performance to argue that his economic policies are working. Romney countered that the country can't afford four more years of the president's leadership and argued that the rate is low in part because some people have quit looking for work.
"These are tough times in this community," Romney told a rally outside a construction equipment store after meeting with coal miners who have been laid off. "We're going to bring back jobs and bring back America."
Obama responded that Romney wants to roll back policies that are repairing the economic damage.
"Today's news should give us some encouragement," Obama told thousands gathered in the rain for an afternoon rally at Cleveland State University. "It shouldn't be an excuse for the other side to try to talk down the economy just to try to score a few political points."
The unemployment rate fell from 8.1 percent in August, matching its level in January 2009 when Obama became president. There is one more monthly unemployment report before Election Day, so Friday's numbers could leave a lasting impact on Americans who are already casting ballots in states that allow early voting.
The candidates campaigned Friday on opposite ends of one of those early voting states, Virginia. Romney, in the state's far western coal country, said he wants to develop coal and other domestic resources to make North America energy independent in eight years. Obama focused on recruiting women at an appearance in the Washington suburbs, where he argued that his health care policy has improved their health care choices.
Obama, seeking to rebound after Romney dominated their first debate Wednesday night, is accusing his rival of being dishonest about how his policies would affect the tax bills of middle-class families and the Medicare benefits of retirees. He told an audience at George Mason University that his rival "got an extreme makeover" in their face-off.
He also argued Romney can't bring change to the country when he's "willing to write off half the nation before you take office," a reference to Romney's disparaging remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes. Romney made the comments at a fundraiser in May that was secretly recorded, but the videotape did not emerge until last month. Romney went as far as he's ever gone to try to take back his words in an interview Thursday night with Fox News.
"Well, clearly in a campaign, with hundreds if not thousands of speeches and question-and-answer sessions, now and then you're going to say something that doesn't come out right," Romney said Thursday. "In this case, I said something that's just completely wrong."
At the White House, senior adviser David Plouffe retorted: "I would take with a huge grain of salt trying to clean something up five months after you said it for the first time."
The next presidential debate is not until Oct. 16, a town hall-style meeting at Hofstra University in New York, giving both sides ample opportunities to blanket battleground states and raise money for the final weeks of television advertising.
Romney released three new ads on Friday, offering a window into his strategy for the coming week. One, called "Facts Are Clear," focuses on the national debt and accuses Obama of wasting trillions of dollars instead of creating jobs. A second spot features Greg Anthony, a former professional basketball player from Nevada, talking about his roots in the state and his switch from backing Obama in 2008 to Romney this year.
The third spot is titled, simply, "Ohio Jobs." It features Romney looking straight at the camera to talk to voters from the Midwestern battleground state seen as critical to his White House hopes. Obama also was campaigning in Ohio on Friday.
Romney planned a rally later in the day in St. Petersburg, Fla., kicking off a weekend of campaigning in that state, the largest of the prized battlegrounds. Obama was heading to California on Sunday for a fundraising spree that will include a concert in Los Angeles featuring Jon Bon Jovi, Katy Perry and Stevie Wonder.
Traveling aboard Air Force One, Plouffe foreshadowed an intense focus on Ohio in the coming weeks, where polls have shifted in Obama's favor. No Republican has won the presidency without winning Ohio, and Obama's campaign sees blocking Romney there as one of its best paths to victory.
Plouffe said the true measure of the first debate was whether it moved voters in the battleground states. Speaking of Romney, Plouffe said: "Is he going to take the lead in Ohio? If he doesn't, he's not going to be president," he said.