NEW: A new CNN/ORC poll shows Obama maintains a slight edge in Ohio
NEW: Former President Bill Clinton to campaign in Pennsylvania
The campaigns provide differing spin on the October employment numbers
Obama cites "real progress"; Mitt Romney says he offers real change
Launching their final campaign bursts in a close and contentious race, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney argued Friday over who will bring real change to a nation still mired in a sluggish economy.
With four days until the Tuesday election, a stronger-than-expected October jobs report evoked a typically divided reaction from the candidates competing for every last vote in the handful of battleground states considered still up for grabs.
The last government unemployment figures before Election Day showed more of the incremental economic growth that Obama heralds as continued recovery and Romney labels insufficient.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the economy added 171,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate rose to 7.9%, up from 7.8% in September after being above 8% since February 2009 – the month after Obama took office.
At three rallies in Ohio, one of the most crucial swing states, Obama made a brief reference to the report in telling boisterous crowds that “we learned companies hired more workers in October than at any time in the last eight months.”
He then quickly shifted his campaign stump speech each time, citing a revived American auto industry, rising home values and increased highway construction – all important economic issues in Ohio – as evidence of recovery during his presidency.
“We have made real progress,” Obama said, adding that “we are here today because we know we’ve got more work to do.”
The White House noted the jobs report showed growth for a 32nd straight month to further bolster recovery from the recession inherited by Obama.
“While more work remains to be done, today’s employment report provides further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to heal from the wounds inflicted by the worst downturn since the Great Depression,” said a statement by Alan Krueger, who chairs Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.
To Romney, the increase in the unemployment rate was “a sad reminder that the economy is at a virtual standstill.”
“Unemployment today is higher than when Barack Obama took office,” Romney told a campaign event in Wisconsin.
In a statement released by his campaign, Romney said Obama’s policies have “crushed America’s middle class” for four years, and that the president’s claims of progress ring hollow with people struggling to get by.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, piled on in saying that “four years of persistently high unemployment and long-term joblessness might be the best President Obama can do – but it’s nowhere near what the American people can do if we get Washington out of their way.”
Blaming what he called failed Obama policies including stimulus-style spending, excessive regulations and the threat of tax hikes by the president, Boehner said the result was “an economy that’s far weaker than it should be.”
The October figures show that for the first time, the U.S. economy has more jobs than it did when Obama took office. The actual figure is 194,000 more jobs today than in January 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, and expected revisions could make the number larger.
U.S. stocks initially opened higher on the jobs data before turning lower as the day wore on. The data on new hiring also complimented other economic reports this week showing gains in manufacturing, consumer confidence and auto sales.
Sheila Bair, a former head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, told CNN the employment report would have a minimal impact on Election Day because the numbers already play into the campaigns’ economic narratives.
Voters consistently cite the economy as the top election issue this year, and Romney and Republicans have focused their campaign efforts on framing the vote as a referendum on Obama’s presidency.
The unemployment rate was 7.8% when Obama was sworn in on January 20, 2009, and climbed above 8% the next month before dropping to 7.8% again more than three years later, in September.
Obama and his campaign often note that the economy was losing well over 500,000 jobs a month when he took office, and that his policies have reversed that trend to bring uninterrupted, though slower-than-needed growth.
Krueger’s statement Friday said that over the past 12 months, the economy added more than two million jobs compared to 1.9 million in the previous year.
However, Romney and Republicans say a lack of leadership has prevented a more robust recovery.
“Four years ago, candidate Obama promised to do so very much, but he has fallen so very short,” Romney said in a campaign speech in Wisconsin. “Words are cheap. A record is real and it’s earned with real effort. Real change is not measured in words. Real change is measured in achievements.”
The question of the election, Romney said, “comes down to this: Do you want more of the same or do you want real change?”
He also accused Obama of failing to work with congressional Republicans and warned of further dysfunction in Washington, saying “the debt ceiling will come up again and shut down and default will be threatened, chilling the economy.”
Democrats blame GOP intransigence, led by a conservative wing of tea party favorites, for congressional stalemate. A possible comprehensive agreement on deficit reduction stalled over the refusal of both sides to yield on the issue of tax increases, with Democrats calling for a return to higher rates of the 1990s on income over $250,000 while Republicans rejected any kind of rise.
In his Ohio remarks, Obama challenged Romney’s argument, saying his Republican rival offered only a repeat of tax cuts and shrinking government that he blamed for contributing to the recession and financial collapse during the Bush administration.
Obama also leveled a harsh attack on a Romney ad earlier this week that incorrectly implied Jeep would shift manufacturing from the United States to China. The issue resonates in Ohio, one of the most important battleground states still up for grabs, because of its major auto industry.
The auto industry bailout that Obama championed gives him the advantage on the topic over Romney, who called at the time for letting the automakers go bankrupt and then managing their reform.
Obama said the Romney ad caused worried autoworkers to wonder if their jobs were being shipped overseas.
“It’s not true. The car companies themselves have told Gov. Romney to knock it off,” Obama said, adding that he understood Romney had a tough time in Ohio because he opposed the auto bailout and is “on videotape saying ‘Let Detroit go bankrupt.’ “
About the ad, Obama said: “You don’t scare people just to scare up some votes.”
“That’s not leadership,” he continued. “When I made the decision to rescue the auto industry, I knew it wasn’t popular. It wasn’t even popular in Ohio. But I knew it was the right thing to do. Betting on workers was right thing to do.”
A new CNN/ORC International poll released Friday showed Obama maintaining a narrow edge over Romney, 50%-47%, in Ohio. The result is within the survey’s margin of error and is similar to polling in the state over the past month.
Both campaigns are focusing their final push on the handful of battleground states that are vital to their chances. In addition, Romney and running mate Rep. Paul Ryan are heading to Pennsylvania, which was considered to be leaning Democratic but has seen tightening in the polls in recent weeks.
The Obama campaign calls the Romney focus on Pennsylvania a futile effort to win a state that has supported Democratic candidates in the last five presidential elections. However, it announced Friday that former President Bill Clinton, a top surrogate for Obama, will campaign in Pennsylvania on Monday.
CNNMoney’s Tami Luhby, Paul Steinhauser, Kevin Bohn, Ashley Killough and Steve Hargreaves contributed to this report.