ABINGDON, Va. — The cheering stopped on Mitt Romney's campaign plane Friday morning.
The day before, aides had whistled and clapped when the Denver control tower commended the Republican presidential nominee's debate performance. It was a rare moment of exuberance for a campaign that had fallen behind President Barack Obama in a number of polls.
The euphoria ended after the morning report that the nation's unemployment rate had dropped to 7.8 percent, its lowest level in Obama's presidency. Romney and his team sat stone-faced and quiet on the flight to Virginia's coal country, taking in the good news for the country that's bad news for their political prospects.
The former businessman has staked his candidacy on the notion that the economy needs a turnaround. So, even as Republicans elsewhere conceded progress, Romney described the positive report in negative terms.
"This is not what a real recovery looks like," he declared in a written statement less than an hour after the job growth numbers came out.
Campaigning outside an Abingdon equipment company, Romney dismissed the report as evidence that millions of unemployed Americans had simply given up.
"The unemployment rate, as you know, this year has come down very, very slowly, but it's come down nonetheless," Romney told more than 3,000 supporters in this small western Virginia community. "The reason it's come down this year is primarily due to the fact that more and more people have just stopped looking for work."
Last month's improvement is attributed to more people finding work, according to data released by the Labor Department.
The unemployment rate fell to 7.8 percent in September, dropping below 8 percent for the first time in nearly four years. The Labor Department says employers added 114,000 jobs in September. The economy also created 86,000 more jobs in July and August than first estimated.
Wages rose in September and more people started looking for work.
The report gave Obama fresh evidence to argue that his economic policies are working. It also gave the president an opportunity to suggest that Romney is rooting against the economic recovery.
"Today's news certainly is not an excuse to try to talk down the economy to score a few political points," Obama said at a rally in northern Virginia. "It's a reminder that this country has come too far to turn back now."
Romney aides have long worried that circumstances out of their control — particularly an economic surge close to the election — could undermine Romney's candidacy. One more monthly unemployment report is due before Election Day, so Friday's numbers could leave a lasting impact on Americans who are already casting ballots in states that allow early voting.
Romney's campaign has adapted in recent months as noneconomic issues surfaced. In particular, the former Massachusetts governor has broadened his message to include more focus on foreign policy and the military. He's set to deliver a foreign policy speech on Monday.
But the longtime businessman launched his campaign on the premise that only he can repair the American economy. His central message in countless rallies, campaign ads and interviews is that Obama isn't doing enough to create jobs.
"These are tough times in this community," Romney said in Abingdon after meeting with coal miners who have been laid off. The crowd cheered as he added, "I'd take America in a very different direction."