FAIRFAX, Va. — 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.
Romney launched three new commercials during the day, one aimed at voters in Nevada, a second targeted to Ohio and a third that says Obama claims "he is creating jobs, but he's really creating debt," running up deficits and spending unnecessarily. "He's not just wasting it. He's borrowing it and then wasting it," the narrator says.
The campaign did not say where it would air.
Romney's strong showing in the campaign's first general election debate cheered Republicans who had worried about his campaign, and forced Obama's aides into a rare public acknowledgement that they would have to adjust their strategy for the next encounter.
The jobs report was the main flashpoint of the day, and Obama scolded Republicans for their reaction.
"Today's news certainly is not an excuse to try to talk down the economy to score a few political points," he said as Romney and most GOP lawmakers emphasized portions of the report other than the drop in the unemployment rate to the same level as when the president took office.
Republicans made it clear they wanted to keep the focus on Wednesday night's debate, when Romney appeared confident as he pitched his case for a new approach to the economy and Obama turned in a performance that even some Democrats conceded was subpar.
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"I enjoyed that debate a couple nights ago. That was a great experience," Romney told a crowd of more than 5,000 in St. Petersburg, Fla. Friday night, declining to cite the new jobs report.
In a weekly "Weekend Messaging Memo" distributed by the Republican National Committee, communications director Sean Spicer devoted 650 words to a recap of the debate — and made no mention of the drop in unemployment.
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in Virginia and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar in Washington contributed to this story. Espo reported from Washington.