Steven Senne, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Every four weeks between now and November, a single number issued from a spare, windowless room in the heart of the federal bureaucracy will set the battle lines for the presidential election.
The nation's monthly jobless rate — disclosed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics the first Friday of every month — is this year's dominant economic barometer. It's a baseline from which to gauge the political fortunes of President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney in an election that rides on the pace of a post-recession recovery.
Friday's number will be the first since Mitt Romney clinched the Republican presidential nomination. It also comes as Obama heads for Minnesota to push his proposal to expand job opportunities for veterans and to raise money for his campaign. In the meantime, the world anxiously awaits the impact of the European debt crisis, which could stall the recovery in the U.S.
Economists were expecting the report to show that employers added 158,000 jobs but that the unemployment rate did not change from April's 8.1 percent. No president since the Great Depression has sought re-election with unemployment as high as that, and past incumbents have lost when the unemployment rate was on the rise.
Romney wants this presidential election to be a referendum on Obama's 3 1/2 years in office. Obama wants it to be a choice between two distinct visions for the country.
The economy is central to each candidate's argument. While imprecise and a typically lagging indicator of economic performance, the unemployment number is nevertheless an undeniable marker of the human cost of a weak economy.
Obama is counting on an unemployment trajectory that has fallen from a high of 10 percent in October 2009 to 8.1 percent last month. The president likes to point to the 3.8 million jobs created since he became president, though 12.5 million remain unemployed. He highlights the resurgence of the auto industry following government bailouts of Chrysler and General Motors. And his campaign has mounted a step-by-step assault on Romney's economic record, from his days as a venture capitalist to his tenure as Massachusetts governor from 2003-2007.
"The imperative for an incumbent president is to define the race as a choice," said Matt Bennett of the centrist-Democratic group Third Way. "Part of doing that is to define yourself. Equally important, you have to define the other side so as to avoid it becoming a referendum on the president."
Romney, now freed from his primary contests, has aimed heavily at Obama's economic policies, arguing that they have slowed the recovery, not aided it. The Republican has emphasized his background in private business to argue that he's qualified to lead a nation in economic turmoil.
Political stunts by each campaign on Thursday illustrated how they intend to frame the election around economic themes.
In Boston, Obama's top campaign adviser, David Axelrod, staged a news conference to attack Romney's economic record during his governorship. Romney, Axelrod said, presided over a period marked by slow job growth, higher debt and more fees.
Romney, pressing his case against Obama, traveled to Freemont, Calif., to draw attention to the shuttered offices of a solar energy company that went bankrupt after receiving government loans though Obama's 2009 economic stimulus program.
On Friday, the Obama campaign released a new online video featuring several of Romney's former Republican political foes, including Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, criticizing Romney's economic record.
The campaign also said it would hold a series of conference calls with reporters to discuss Romney's "failure to fulfill the economic promises he made" when he was running for governor of Massachusetts.
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