COLUMBUS, Ohio — The last jobs report before Election Day, released Friday, showed 7.9 percent unemployment and 171,000 jobs created in October — strong enough to avoid a last-minute impact in the contest between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Those final jobless numbers from the Labor Department always loomed as a potential landmine for Obama in a race where his tenure over the economy has been an issue from the start to the finish.
Obama is winding up the week on an uptick — an OK jobs report that didn’t rattle the markets or give Romney reason to say anything new — combined with his handling of the Sandy storm disaster and photos of him with his arm draped around now former nemesis New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may have helped him regain some of the footing that vanished with his poor Denver debate performance.
This all comes while voters are already casting early ballots: The Obama campaign estimated on Friday that 23 percent of Ohio voters have already cast ballots.
The October jobs number is up from the 7.8 percent in September — which was the lowest since Obama took office in January 2009 — and continues a drop. The main reason for the tick up is that more people entered the work force. Private-sector jobs have increased for the past 32 months.
The rate was 8.3 percent in August and 8.1 percent in July. That let Obama argue, as he did in this battleground state on Friday, that he is presiding over economic progress.
Speaking to a boisterous crowd in a building with a dusty dirt floor at the Franklin County Fairgrounds in Hilliard, near Columbus, Obama said, “This morning we learned that companies hired more workers in October than at any time in the last eight months.
“The auto — the American auto industry is back on top. Home values and housing construction is on the rise. We’re less dependent on foreign oil than any time in 20 years. … We’ve made real progress, but we are here today because we know we’ve got more work to do.”
Romney — stumping in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis — said the growth was not good enough.
“Today we learned that it’s actually 7.9 percent, and that’s 9 million jobs short of what he promised,” Romney said. “Unemployment is higher today than when Barack Obama took office. Think of that. Unemployment today is higher on — than on the day Barack Obama took office.”
The auto vote is critical in Ohio — and trending toward Obama. The Romney campaign released ads that imply that auto firms the Obama administration bailed out were sending jobs to China, which is not the case. While there has been enormous pushback from the Obama campaign, including a rebuttal ad, Obama personally went after Romney for those spots at his Hilliard stop.
“We’ve — look, you know, we’ve — we’ve been seeing this out — out of Governor Romney and his friends over the last few weeks right here in Ohio. You’ve got folks who work at the Jeep plant who’ve been calling their employers, worried. Asking, is it true?” Obama said.
“Are our jobs being shipped to China? And the reason they’re making these calls is because Governor Romney’s been running an ad that says so. Except, it’s not true. Everybody knows it’s not true.”
The rivals focused on Ohio with four days left in the contentious campaign.
Obama made three stops here on Friday — touching down also in Springfield and Lima — and returns Sunday and Monday, an obvious mark of how important this state and its 18 electoral votes are for Obama: It’s now seen as his main firewall.
Romney flew from Wisconsin for two stops in Ohio, where he wrapped up the day in West Chester, the home turf to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), with performer Kid Rock and about 100 of his main surrogates — governors, senators, members of Congress and local officials.
A CNN/ORC International survey of likely voters pegged Obama at 50 percent to Romney at 47 percent. The poll was conducted Tuesday through Thursday with the results in the margin of error — that is, a dead heat.