WASHINGTON – Friday's lackluster jobs report could play differently in the 2012 presidential campaign's most contested states, where economic conditions vary greatly.
The latest data showed a modest 96,000 new jobs created and the national unemployment rate ticking down slightly to 8.1 percent in August, mostly because people stopped looking for work. Because states like Iowa and New Hampshire are enjoying strong job markets while others like Nevada and North Carolina are suffering more than average, the economy will have a varying political impact in states for which President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney are battling intensely.
Here's a look at the economic and political situations in 11 states where the parties are focusing their efforts, including their jobless rates in July, the most recent month available:
Unemployment rate: 8.3 percent. The jobless rate is close to the national average, adding jobs but not keeping up with the numbers of people looking for employment. Romney has visited worksites like a coal mine to tout his business wisdom, while Obama has focused on college campuses to promote the need to invest in education to spur the economy.
"I see a lot of people losing their homes, people losing their jobs," said Rhonda Akhihiero, 49, a nurse's assistant and Democrat from Aurora, Colo. "It's been a steady pace and I don't think it's getting any better." Bill Ritter Jr., who was the state's Democratic governor until last year, says voters will focus on the steady if slow improvement the state's economy is making but concedes, "Getting re-elected in a tough economy like this is a challenge."
Unemployment rate: 8.8 percent. The state's jobless rate reflects a weak construction sector and one of the nation's worst housing markets, with 1 in 7 mortgages in default early this year, said a report by IHS Global, an economic forecasting firm. But home prices may have bottomed out. Both parties are vying for the state's 29 electoral votes, hence the GOP's staging of its national convention in Tampa last month.
One undecided voter is Ashely Figueroa, 19, of Miami, who has been hunting for a job for more than a year and says she'll factor the economy into her decision. "A couple of my friends have jobs, but a lot of people are still looking," she said. "I don't have money for anything."
Unemployment rate: 5.4 percent. IHS Global says the state's economy is improving but still "shaky at best" because of shrinking payrolls in areas like manufacturing. Obama and Romney are certain to continue visiting this state, where Romney has a vacation home.
"It's bad but it's starting to get better," David Jernigan, 42, a basketball coach from Dover, N.H., said of the local economy.
Unemployment rate: 5.3 percent. Construction and manufacturing in the state are doing well, although the economy is being hurt by this year's drought and big reductions in state and local government jobs, IHS Global reports. Both Obama and Romney staged events in the state Friday, but neither has tailored their messages to reflect Iowa's strong economy. Obama has told voters that Romney doesn't understand the challenges facing middle-class Americans, and Romney has argued that the president doesn't understand how the economy works and demonizes employers.
Unemployment rate: 9 percent. Joblessness is way down since 2009 and the state is showing signs of a comeback. Obama contends his effort to rescue General Motors and Chrysler from bankruptcy is one of his biggest successes, while Romney has said Michigan would benefit from his economic plan, including repeal of Obama's health care law.
Brett Christian, 25, a student from Frankfort, Mich., said he's undecided about whom to support in the presidential race, considering Romney stronger on the economy but favoring Obama on social issues. But he said, "The economy does need to be fixed. It's probably the main priority that they need to work on before getting into the other stuff."
Unemployment rate: 12 percent. Nevada has the nation's highest jobless rate. Adding to its problems — more than half of homeowners owe more than their dwellings are worth, and the weak national economy leaves vacationers and gamblers with less money to spend when they visit. "Nevadans are so, I'm looking for a word somewhere between cynical and desperate" about what Obama or Romney can do for them, said Erik Herzik, chairman of the political science department at University of Nevada, Reno.
The Romney campaign released a new television ad Friday in which he blames the Obama administration for Nevada's economic woes and the loss of 60,000 jobs since the Great Recession. Obama, campaigning at a community college in Reno last month, stressed the availability of college loans. "My shop is hanging in there," said Merry Summy, 61, a quilt shop owner in Boulder City, Nev., who expects to back Romney.
Unemployment rate: 9.6 percent. The state is still suffering from declining textile and banking industries, and its jobless rate is among the nation's worst and nearly twice as bad as when the recession started in 2007. The number of poor has also doubled. That didn't stop Democrats from holding their national convention there this week in hopes of keeping the state in Obama's column as it was in 2008. GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan swooped into Greenville, N.C., on Labor Day to say Obama "can't tell you that you're better off" than four years earlier.
Accounting manager Rena Waring, 53, of Clemmons, N.C., said her acquaintances have jobs and she will vote for Romney. She said her biggest problem is her "astronomical" health insurance costs, saying she doesn't believe Obama's health care overhaul will help her.
Unemployment rate: 7.2 percent. Obama has pointed to his administration's auto bailout as a reason for Ohio's unemployment rate being below the national average. Joblessness has decreased by 97,000 in the past year and is at its lowest point since 2008. GOP Gov. John Kasich has credited his own policies for the state's jobs comeback.
Nicole Armstrong, 37, a jobless single mother from Cincinnati, says Obama will get her vote because of the economy, though she says more needs to happen. "I hope if Obama does stay in, the unemployment rate goes down and everybody finds jobs and he helps everybody live comfortable the way he says he plans on doing."
Unemployment rate: 7.9 percent. Private sector jobs have grown but state and local governments, collecting lower revenues, have shed workers, according to an IHS Global survey. Work toward extracting natural gas liquids from a shale formation has started to spark job development in the state's southwestern area, the report said.
Unemployment rate: 5.9 percent. The state's economy has remained fairly robust through the recession, thanks largely to government contractors and a big military presence. The state has long backed GOP presidential candidates but Obama grabbed it in 2008. He is deadlocked there with Romney, who plans to mingle with NASCAR fans in Richmond on Saturday.
Scott Deffenbaugh, 52, of Quinton, Va., said many of his neighbors are struggling, especially those who work in construction. An electrician, he said the job situation has been poor the past three years. He did not say who he would vote for but said joblessness would be factor, saying, "We need some improvement in general employment."
Unemployment rate: 7.3 percent. The economy has generally improved in Ryan's home state since 2008, when a General Motors plant in the Republican vice presidential nominee's hometown of Janesville closed. Ryan tried linking Obama to the closure even though it occurred under President George W. Bush. Although the unemployment rate is lower than the national average, the state lost jobs in July.
Jibrail Shaikh, 27, of Milwaukee, is frustrated with his temporary legal job at a bank yet he says he's leaning toward Obama. "This is a bad situation right now but in the future it's going to get better," he said.
Associated Press writers Kristen Wyatt in Colorado, Holly Ramer in New Hampshire, Scott McFetridge in Iowa, Martha Waggoner and Emery Dalesio in North Carolina, Carrie Antlfinger and Scott Bauer in Wisconsin, Sandra Chereb and Ken Ritter in Nevada, Suzette Laboy in Florida, John Flesher in Michigan, Steve Szkotak in Virginia and Amanda Myers in Ohio contributed to this report.