OHIO, United States (UPDATED) - President Barack Obama evaded a last-minute time bomb Friday (Saturday, November 3, Manila time), as the economy pumped out more jobs than expected in October, delivering a boost to his re-election hopes as the final weekend of campaigning begins.
Republican Mitt Romney, however, seized on an uptick in the jobless rate by a tenth of a point to 7.9% to bemoan an economy at a "virtual standstill," and said Americans would choose on Tuesday between prosperity and stagnation.
The rivals, back at each other's throats after a truce during superstorm Sandy, converged in Ohio just 4 days before November 6, stumping for undecided voters and urging their faithful to head to the ballot box next Tuesday in a state where all is up for grabs.
After several weeks of polls suggesting a neck-and-neck race, there were new signs that Obama's position, as he seeks a second term, may be solidifying.
National polls of the popular vote now mostly show a tied race or with either man up one point -- but with time running out Obama's line of defense in key battleground states seems to be holding.
All polling leads were within the margin of error, however, and both campaigns, though expressing confidence, will face a nervous night as results roll in on Tuesday and test their assumptions about the race.
Jobs data a relief
Obama, perhaps mindful of millions of Americans suffering from the lingering impact of the worst recession since the 1930s, avoided a triumphal tone on the jobs data that sent relief rippling through his campaign team.
"We have made real progress," Obama said, in Hilliard, on the first stop of a day-long swing through small towns in Ohio, which could be a tipping point state in a tied-up election.
Romney quickly highlighted the fact that, although the economy is creating jobs at a moderate pace, unemployment remains at historically high levels.
"For 4 years, President Obama's policies have crushed America's middle class," Romney said in a statement.
"When I'm president, I'm going to make real changes that lead to a real recovery, so that the next 4 years are better than the last," said Romney, who started his day in Wisconsin and ended it in Ohio.
The release of the final major economic data before the election had worried Obama aides who feared that a leap in the rate above the psychological eight percent mark could have sent late-deciding voters to Romney.
But although the data was far from spectacular -- with 171,000 jobs created last month -- there was enough in the report, including upward revisions of previous monthly figures, for Obama to argue the economy was improving.
Many analysts doubted that barring a disastrous slump in the data, there would be much impact on the election, but the upped pace of job creation does perhaps explain Obama's stable position in some midwestern swing states.
The figures by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics were an apt metaphor for the entire campaign, revealing an economic recovery neither bad enough to doom Obama nor sufficiently robust to get him re-elected at a canter.
The president, who has turned down the raw partisanship of his rhetoric to match the national mood after superstorm Sandy tore ashore, claiming 95 US lives, nevertheless sought to dismantle Romney's closing argument.
He repudiated the Republican's claim to being an agent of change, accusing him instead of trying to "massage the facts," highlighting a Romney ad that claims that Chrysler plans to outsource jobs to China to produce its Jeep vehicles.
"I know we are close to an election, but this isn't a game. These are people's jobs. These are people's lives," Obama said, noting that auto bosses had directly contradicted Romney on the attack.
The president repeatedly touts his decision to bail out indebted US automakers in a politically unpopular 2009 move that helped restore the industry to health.
One in 8 jobs in Ohio are linked to the sector, and Romney's opposition to the bailout has emerged as a liability for the Republican.
Romney makes his play
Trailing in most Ohio polls, Romney an upset in the ultimate battleground, imploring voters to give him a state win that could send him over the top on election day.
"Ohio, you're probably going to decide the next president of the United States," he told supporters in Etna, before heading to a huge rally with some 100 party luminaries including House Speaker John Boehner, ex-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senator John McCain and Romney's running mate Paul Ryan.
Romney's campaign said 30,000 people were on hand at the event in West Chester; police put the figure at closer to 18,000. Either way, it was the largest Romney rally since August's Republican National Convention.
After more than a year of campaigning, including a hard-fought Republican primary and a bitter general election race that has seen at least $2 billion spent by both sides, Romney recognized his presidential dream was reaching its final stages.
"Now we're almost home," the Republican nominee said. "One final push will get us there. We've known many long days and short nights, and we are so very very close.
"The door to a brighter future is there, it's open, it's waiting for us. I need your vote, I need your help," he said.
A CNN/Opinion Research poll showed Obama up 3 points in Ohio, raising his average in the RealClearPolitics aggregate of opinion surveys in the state to 2.4 points.
The president also leads Romney in enough of the 8 or so swing states to assure himself of the 270 electoral votes needed for re-election, if polling data is confirmed by voting.
Romney's team, however, insists that its man has momentum and that public polls overestimate likely Democratic turnout, and also predict that the Republican's advantage among independent voters will prove decisive. -- Agence France-Presse
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