MANCHESTER, N.H. — Casting President Barack Obama as a failure who has tanked the United States' economy, Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney seized on Friday's jobs report as he pitched himself as an alternative with the experience to turn around the struggling economy.
"Three years into his term, we have more news that unemployment has ticked up again," Romney said at a town hall-style meeting, a day after he formally entered he joined the GOP presidential contest.
Employers hired 54,000 new workers in May, the fewest in eight months, and the unemployment rate rose to 9.1 percent. The Labor Department report offered startling evidence that the U.S. economy is slowing, hampered by high gas prices and natural disasters in Japan that have hurt U.S. manufacturers.
Romney's expected rivals also used the jobs numbers to make the case of why they should replace Obama in early 2013.
"Today's underwhelming job numbers report demonstrates President Obama's failure to address the tough challenges we face as a nation," former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said in a statement. "We need a leader to stand up and make the difficult choices essential to spur economic growth and create new jobs."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been dogged in recent weeks by the disclosure he ran up as much as $500,000 in unpaid bills at luxury jeweler Tiffany's, said the job numbers should refocus the campaign on voters' pocketbooks.
"America cannot wait, we must take immediate steps to put America back on the path of economic growth and job creation," Gingrich said in a statement. "While the news media is focused on trivia, too many Americans are in pain. America only works if Americans are working."
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, still weighing a presidential bid as he visited this early nominating state, tried to use the jobs report as a reason voters should look at his record.
"As governor of Utah — while our country faded into recession — we created an environment that brought jobs to the state without resorting to out of control spending and debt," Huntsman said in a statement. "It is time for America to do the same, putting an end to the suffering of millions of Americans who are struggling to find economic opportunity."
An Associated Press-GfK poll last month found Americans are growing more optimistic about the U.S. economy; more than 2 out of 5 people believed the U.S. economy would get better. The candidates lining up to challenge Obama are hoping voters blame him for their economic woes.
"Three years later, we have higher gasoline prices, higher food prices, more people are feeling the squeeze," Romney said, hammering home an economic message that is expected to be at the center of his campaign.
Romney then offered what is emerging as a refrain: "The truth is, Barack Obama has failed America."
Romney, who ran for president four years ago and came up short to Sen. John McCain for the GOP nomination, is selling himself as a business executive who has a record of creating jobs and fixing failing enterprises. And while voters here know him, he is taking nothing for granted as he ticked through his biography: former Massachusetts governor, head of the Olympic games, son of a former Michigan governor who also sought the presidency.
"He was here running for president in 1968 and I hope I do better than he did," Romney said to laughter during his first town hall-style meeting that was as much about Obama as it was about his own bid.
"Look, he's a nice guy. He's well-spoken. He can talk a dog off a meat wagon," Romney said of Obama. "But he hasn't delivered. ... What he has done has failed the American people."
Romney is looking at New Hampshire as a key piece in his strategy. He came in second place here four years ago and has kept his supporters engaged as he hinted at another run. But he still has the same questions: his role in Massachusetts' health care plan that was a model for the Democrats' national law, questions about his authenticity and shifts in his policy on abortion and gay rights.
As he wrapped up his event at the University of New Hampshire's Manchester campus, he nodded to challenges: "I've got a lot of time and a lot of work ahead."