FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) — Mitt Romney was still celebrating his widely praised debate performance when the campaign lurched in a different direction.
Unemployment dropped last month to the lowest level since 2009, and suddenly it was President Barack Obama's turn to smile.
In a race dominated by the weak economy, Obama said Friday the creation of 114,000 jobs in September, coupled with a drop in unemployment to 7.8 percent, was "a reminder that this country has come too far to turn back now." Jabbing at his rival's plans, he declared, "We've made too much progress to return to the policies that caused this crisis in the first place."
But Romney saw little to like in the day's new government numbers.
"This is not what a real recovery looks like," the former Massachusetts governor and businessman said, an analysis echoed by other Republicans throughout the day. "We created fewer jobs in September than in August, and fewer jobs in August than in July, and we've lost over 600,000 manufacturing jobs since President Obama took office," Romney added.
"If not for all the people who have simply dropped out of the labor force, the real unemployment rate would be closer to 11%," he said.
Incumbent and challenger alike campaigned in battleground states during the day, each man starting out in Virginia before the president headed for Ohio and Romney flew to Florida. Those three states, along with Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Iowa make up the nine battleground states where the race is likely to be decided. Among them, they account for 110 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
Recent polls have shown Obama with leads in most if not all of them, although the impact of Wednesday night's debate and of the drop in unemployment could well change some public opinion.
Both campaigns kept up a television advertising war with a price tag approaching $750 million when outside group spending is included.