PRESIDENT Barack Obama has dodged a potential last-minute blow to his re-election hopes, with the release of data showing the sluggish US economy created more jobs than expected last month.
Republican Mitt Romney, however, seized on an uptick in the jobless rate by a tenth of point to 7.9 per cent to bemoan an economy at a “virtual standstill” and said Americans would choose on Tuesday between prosperity and stagnation.
“For four years, President Obama’s policies have crushed America’s middle class,” Mr Romney said in a statement.
“When I’m president, I’m going to make real changes that lead to a real recovery, so that the next four years are better than the last.”
Mr Obama was due to give his reaction to the unemployment numbers at his first rally of the day in the battleground state of Ohio, the epicenter of the last Friday of the White House race, where Mr Romney was also campaigning.
The impending release of the final major economic data before the tied-up election had jangled nerves of Obama aides who feared a leap in the rate above the psychological eight per cent mark could have sent late-deciding voters to Mr Romney.
But although the data was far from spectacular – with 171,000 jobs created last month – there was enough in the report, including upward revisions of previous monthly figures for Mr Obama to argue the economy was improving.
The consensus of economic analysts had been for job creation of around 125,000 in October.
Many analysts doubted that barring a disastrous slump in the data, that there would be much impact on the election, but the pace of job creation does perhaps explain Mr Obama’s stable position in some midwestern swing states.And the figures by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics were an apt metaphor for the entire campaign, revealing an economic recovery neither bad enough to doom Mr Obama nor sufficiently robust to get him re-elected at a canter.
Mr Obama was to hold rallies on Friday across Ohio, where he plans to tell voters how he will create jobs over the next four years.
Mr Romney, meanwhile, will be chasing Mr Obama’s tail in Wisconsin, before heading to Ohio to hold a big evening rally with running mate Paul Ryan and family members in West Chester, near the Republican stronghold of Cincinnati.
Most recent polls show Mr Obama up in Ohio, by between two and five points, and Mr Romney cannot afford to give up on a state which every modern Republican president has won on the way to winning the White House.
With just four days of campaigning left, neither campaign, despite their bravado, can be completely confident about the result.
The RealClearPolitics average of national polls Thursday showed a tie, though Mr Obama appears better positioned than Mr Romney in many of the less than a dozen swing states that will decide the election.
But all the president’s leads were within the margin of error, lending some credence to the Romney camp’s belief that many of Mr Obama’s 2008 voters will not show up and that the intensity of Republican voters will be decisive.
Mr Romney’s team believes he is well placed after a flurry of polls showing him doing better than Mr Obama among independent voters, but Mr Obama got a boost with that bloc on Thursday with the endorsement of New York mayor and popular independent politician Michael Bloomberg.
Mr Obama on Thursday appeared on the campaign trail for the first time since Sandy roared ashore on Monday with hurricane force winds and murderous flood tides along the northeast coast, killing at least 92 people.
He leapt at the opportunity to showcase his leadership skills during the storm as he marshalled the federal government’s emergency response effort.
The president toned down some of the raw partisanship of his electoral message, but moved to stop Mr Romney appropriating the change mantle he used to win the White House in 2008.
“Governor Romney has been using all his talents as a salesman to dress up these very same policies that failed our country so badly, the very same policies we’ve been cleaning up after for the past four years – and he is offering them up as change,” Mr Obama said on Thursday.
“What the governor is offering sure ain’t change. Getting more power back to the biggest banks isn’t change. Leaving millions without health insurance isn’t change.”
Mr Romney, struggling to recapture the initiative after being sidelined by Sandy, made three stops in battleground Virginia, where he sought to refocus the race on his strongest argument: the listless economy.
“I know the Obama folks are chanting ‘four more years,'” Mr Romney told supporters in Roanoke, Virginia. “But our chant is this: ‘Five more days!'”
With Mr Romney’s team confident it can score at least a few upset victories in Democrat-leaning states, his campaign said the Republican would stump for votes in Pennsylvania on Sunday, just 48 hours before election day.
Pennsylvania has been in Mr Obama’s column for months, with the latest Real Clear Politics average of polls showing the incumbent up 4.6 percentage points in the large, eastern state.
But Romney aides dismiss polls as giving an incomplete picture in many states where they feel the challenger has built recent momentum that could deliver a stronger-than-expected turnout.