ORLANDO, Fla. – Declaring that the nation is in a "jobs crisis," Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is charging ahead with his economic arguments in spite of unemployment dropping to its lowest level since President Barack Obama took office.
Romney all but ignored the positive jobs numbers while campaigning Friday night in Florida, instead highlighting his strong debate performance and presenting a more compassionate message as he sought to overcome Obama's narrow lead in the polls. He made clear earlier in the day that he did not agree with the president's assessment that the unemployment statistic -- it dipped from 8.1 percent to 7.8 percent in September -- is a sign of an economy heading in the right direction.
"By any rational measure, it's crystal clear we're in the middle of a jobs crisis," Romney said in a fundraising message to supporters. "My priority is jobs. And from Day One of my presidency, I will lead us out of this crisis."
Obama said the creation of 114,000 jobs in September, coupled with the drop in unemployment, was "a reminder that this country has come too far to turn back now." Jabbing at his rival's plans, the president declared, "We've made too much progress to return to the policies that caused this crisis in the first place."
Obama was planning to spend Saturday celebrating the 20th wedding anniversary he had put aside because it fell on the day of the debate. With Vice President Joe Biden and Romney running mate Paul Ryan forgoing public events ahead of their own debate, on Thursday in Danville, Ky., Romney has the stage to himself for a campaign event near Orlando, Fla.
Aides say Romney would spend part of Saturday preparing for his next debate with Obama, scheduled for Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., before speaking at an evening rally. The president's team says he hasn't had any formal practice sessions since the first debate.
While sticking with his focus on economic issues, Romney was also bringing up intimate details of friendships that had ended in death as part of a shift to present himself in more personal terms. His wife, Ann, has often talked about Romney's compassionate side, but the former Massachusetts governor rarely discusses it publicly.
At a rally in St. Petersburg., Romney recalled the time he spent with a young teenager dying of leukemia, returning to a story the boy's parents had related from the stage of the Republican National Convention. "I've seen the character of a young man like David, who wasn't emotional or crying. He had his eyes wide open," Romney said Friday night. "There's a saying: Clear eyes, full heart, can't lose. David couldn't lose. I loved that young man."
The Romney campaign was releasing a TV ad featuring a woman who says she voted for Obama in 2008 but is supporting the Republican today. "Why Mitt Romney?" she asks. "Being a woman, you think about your children and you think about their future. And what I want to think about is a future that has jobs. That our economy's growing again. That's important to women and it's important to me."
Widely regarded as having lost the debate Wednesday night in Denver to Romney, Obama came out with more energy and a retooled response in rallies in Colorado, Wisconsin and Ohio over the last two days.
On Sunday, Obama is scheduled to launch a lucrative and celebrity-packed fundraising swing to Los Angeles and San Francisco, a two-day trek followed by a campaign rally in ever-important Ohio on Tuesday.
Obama and his surrogates plan to hammer Romney on two fronts: contending that Romney lied about his positions during the debate and criticizing him as downplaying Friday's positive jobs reports. Obama advisers have long believed that Republicans risked appearing as though they were rooting against the economy for political gain.
The argument over the state of jobs comes after a Pew Research Center survey in September found only two issues rated as "very important" for more than 80 percent of voters: 87 percent rated the economy that way and 83 percent placed jobs in that category.
The unexpected uptick in employment could be a major benefit to Obama. A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found that the vast majority of voters already have settled on a candidate, but 17 percent of likely voters are considered persuadable -- either because they're undecided or showing soft support for Obama or Romney. Roughly 56 percent of persuadables approve of the way Obama is handling his job as president, but fewer, 47 percent, approve of his handling of the economy.
Romney argued Friday that the change in the unemployment rate was nothing to celebrate given the millions of people in part-time jobs, those seeking better jobs and those who remain out of work.
"This is not what a real recovery looks like," Romney said shortly after the Labor Department released its report. "We created fewer jobs in September than in August, and fewer jobs in August than in July, and we've lost over 600,000 manufacturing jobs since President Obama took office."
By evening Romney wasn't talking about the jobs report and returned to relishing his good reviews from the debate more than 67 million people watched on TV. He told more than 5,000 people at the rally in St. Petersburg: "I enjoyed that debate a couple nights ago. That was a great experience."