PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — 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 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.
Obama, for his part, admitted: "We need to create more jobs, faster."
Fresh out of the two national conventions, both Obama and Romney chose to campaign Friday in New Hampshire and Iowa, improbable battleground states in the too-close-to-call race.
Sixty days out from the election, the rivals were quick to roll out rival contexts for 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.
After making a quiet departure from his convention city in Charlotte, N.C., the president told a welcoming crowd of 6,000 at the Strawberry Banke Museum in Portsmouth that he has a plan to "fill the hole left by this recession faster."
Obama, campaigning with Vice President Joe Biden, highlighted the fact that businesses had "added jobs for the 30th month in a row," before allowing that "that's not good enough."
"There's a lot more we can do," he said — pointing squarely at Republicans in Congress for more cooperation.
Romney countered from Orange City, Iowa: "This president tried, but he didn't understand what it takes to make our economy work. I do."
Earlier, talking to reporters in Sioux City, Romney told reporters: "There's almost nothing the president's done in the last three-and-a-half, four years to give the American people confidence he knows what he's doing when it comes to jobs and the economy."
He told Fox News the latest jobs report was part of a "continued pattern, which is that we're not creating the jobs we need to create to put Americans back to work."
Alan Krueger, the chairman of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, framed the jobs report as "further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression."
He 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 competing 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.
Either way, the numbers suggest that not much has happened over the past month to change the overall picture of a painfully slow recovery.
Romney and the Republicans argue that three years of unemployment above 8 percent and minimal economic growth are valid reasons to fire Obama after one term. The incumbent contends that, having inherited one of the worst economic crises in history, he needs more time to turn the nation around.
"The truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades," he said in his convention speech.
For the candidates, the two months to Nov. 6 promise a high-stakes mix of debates, multiple appearances in a dozen battleground states and hours of campaign speeches. Both will be scrapping for the precious commodity of electoral votes to reach the winning number of 270, leaving no competitive state quiet this fall. The airwaves will be inundated with ads from the campaigns and outside groups, with Romney likely to have more money to spend.
The GOP nominee has new ads running in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia — mapping out the key battleground states where the race will play out. His campaign has purchased about $4.5 million in television advertising for the next several days, according to officials who track such spending.
Cassata reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont in Sioux City, Iowa, contributed to this report.
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