Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — His convention over, President Barack Obama ran smack into the harsh reality of a bleak new report on the nation's unemployment outlook Friday. Republican rival Mitt Romney pounced on the disappointing jobs figures as fresh evidence that it's time to put someone new in the Oval Office.
"We're going in the wrong direction," the GOP nominee said flatly.
The candidates both campaign Friday in New Hampshire and Iowa, improbable battleground states in the too-close-to-call race. Their campaigning is sure to be dominated by the new Labor Department report showing that U.S. employers added just 96,000 jobs last month, failing to meet expectations.
The unemployment rate fell to 8.1 percent from 8.3 percent in July, but only because more people gave up looking for work.
Romney, in an interview with Fox News, called it "another continuation of very bleak news on the employment front." He said it signals a "continued pattern, which is that we're not creating the jobs we need to create to put Americans back to work."
Obama, for his part, made a low-profile departure from his convention city en route to New Hampshire. He left it to Alan Krueger, chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers, to frame the jobs report as "further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression."
Krueger added that it was "important not to read too much into any one monthly report."
Republicans chose to ignore that advice.
"This is not even close to what a recovery looks like," GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan said in an interview on CNBC. "I would argue this is the result of failed leadership in Washington, bad fiscal policy coming from the administration."
Party leaders in Congress released statements offering rival spin on the meaning of the figures.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the report "underscores President Obama's failed promises to get our economy moving again."
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said Obama and the Democrats had plenty of plans to create more jobs and boost the economy but Republicans "keep standing in the way of growth and certainty for our economy."
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt tried to shift the focus to what he said were failings in Romney's economic plans, referring back to the GOP convention in Florida last month and the track record of the Bush administration.
"In Tampa, Mitt Romney didn't offer one idea that would create good-paying, sustainable jobs for the middle class," LaBolt said in a statement. "Gov. Romney has yet to explain how returning to policies that crashed the economy and devastated the middle class would now have the opposite impact."
Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs was up early to pronounce that the Democratic convention had achieved its goals. Speaking before the jobs numbers were released, the adviser said the president "understands we still have a long way to go" to strengthen the economy.
Gibbs acknowledged there's a far different dynamic to this race than the excitement and novelty that were associated with Obama's historic first run for the White House.
"This isn't 2008, we understand that," he said on "CBS This Morning."
The November election could turn on whether voters see the economy as improving, remaining stagnant or getting worse under Obama.
Friday's numbers gave both campaigns something to work with. Supporters of the president focused on the drop to 8.1 percent, suggesting it shows the economy is on the mend, if slowly. Republicans kept their eyes on the raw job numbers.
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