WASHINGTON — Grasping for an election advantage, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney cast Friday's newest round of economic data is starkly different ways. Obama heralded more signs of slow but steady job growth, while Romney said the uptick in the unemployment rate was a "hammer blow" to the middle class.
Both candidates sought to score political points in the hours after the Labor Department said the economy added 163,000 jobs in July, marking the best pace of hiring in five months. The jobless rate rose slightly, however, to 8.3 percent, from 8.2 percent in June.
Obama's electoral prospects in November depend in large part on convincing Americans that he has put an economy once on the brink of recession on the path to growth, however sluggish that growth may be. He touted a 29th straight month of private sector job growth, but acknowledged there were still too many people without jobs.
"We've still got too many folks out there looking for work," he said during an event at the White House. "We've got more work to do on their behalf."
Romney, running for the presidency on his record as a successful businessman, said Friday's numbers were "not just statistics" and underscored the real struggles people across the country are facing. He blamed Obama's health care law and burdensome regulations.
"Those policies, we know where they lead," Romney said. "They lead to an America that is not as strong as it must be for ourselves, for our children and for the world."
Obama and Romney spoke simultaneously from opposite sides of the country.
The president was flanked by the kind of people he says would benefit from his push to extend tax cuts for the middle class while allowing cuts for upper income earners to expire. Romney spoke at a truck equipment company in Nevada, the state with the nation's highest unemployment rate.
The July jobs report exceeded the expectations of economists, who predicted there would be about 100,000 jobs created.
It also was a vast improvement from recent jobs reports. From April through June, the economy produced an average of 75,000 jobs a month, the weakest three months since August through October 2010.
But the July growth was well below the average 252,000 jobs a month added from December through February.
The economy remains the top issue for voters less than three months before Election Day.
While the overall race for the White House remains deadlocked, several polls show Romney with an advantage over Obama on economic issues. A USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted in late July found 50 percent of Americans said Romney is the candidate who would be better at job creation, with 44 percent siding with Obama.
Obama sought to shift quickly Friday from the issue of jobs to taxes. He renewed his call for Congress to extend tax cuts only for families making less than $250,000 before they expire at the end of the year.
The president made no mention of his Republican rival during his remarks but took a veiled swipe at Romney, noting that extending tax cuts for families earning under $250,000 a year would still apply, in part, to the very wealthy. Romney's fortune has been estimated at $250 million.
"We're saying nobody's income taxes go up on the first $250,000 of their income, so even somebody who makes more than $250 (thousand) is getting a tax break on their first $250 (thousand)," Obama said. "You understand? Even somebody who is worth $200 million."
Obama says extending the tax cuts for higher-income earners would stick those making less with larger tax bills.
Romney wants to extend the tax cuts, first enacted by Republican President George W. Bush, for all income earners. He also announced an economic plan this week that he said would create 12 million U.S. jobs in four years.
Romney's plan for job growth included several broad ideas but few specifics. He said he would help small business owners, cut spending to reduce the deficit and cut taxes.
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in Las Vegas, and Ben Feller and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius in Washington contributed to this report.
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