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Last jobs report before election shows economy in 'virtual standstill'

jobfair_ny_102512.jpg

Oct. 25, 2012: A sign attracts job-seekers during a job fair at the Marriott Hotel in Colonie, N.Y.AP

The final monthly jobs report before Election Day offered a mixed bag of economic evidence that quickly became political putty for the presidential candidates, with the unemployment rate ticking up to 7.9 percent but the economy adding a better-than-expected 171,000 jobs. 

At the same time, the number of unemployed grew by 170,000, roughly the same amount -- to 12.3 million. 

The October numbers allow President Obama to argue the economy is technically growing under his watch. But they also allow Mitt Romney to argue that the new jobs are not making much of a dent in the unemployment problem. Both campaigns quickly set to work putting their spin on data that, if nothing else, underscores the slow pace of the recovery. 

"That's 9 million jobs short of what (Obama) promised," Romney said at a rally in Wisconsin shortly before noon. "Unemployment is higher today than when Barack Obama took office." 

The rate was 7.8 percent the month Obama took office. "Today's increase in the unemployment rate is a sad reminder that the economy is at a virtual standstill," Romney said in a separate written 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." 

Former Bureau of Labor Statistics chief Keith Hall told Fox Business Network that at this rate, "we're still talking nine or 10 years" before the economy gets back to normal. 

But Obama, speaking in Hilliard, Ohio, pointed to the report as another sign the economy is moving in the right direction, despite the challenges remaining. 

"We've made real progress, but we are here today because we know we've got more work to do," Obama said. "As long as there's a single American who wants a job and can't find one, as long as there are families working harder but falling behind ... our fight goes on."

Alan B. Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said "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." 

The numbers stand as the last major economic report before Election Day, capping what has effectively been a two-year campaign focused largely on jobs -- or the lack of jobs. While the growth has been slow, over the long term the president can argue the economy has expanded, albeit modestly. Federal figures show that since October 2011, the number of unemployed has shrunk by 1.5 million despite the uptick last month. Still, that number does not count those not currently looking for work, and the latest report shows roughly 6.5 million people are in that category despite still wanting a job. 

The prior September jobs report came as a surprise, showing the unemployment rate dropping to 7.8 percent, dipping below 8 percent for the first time since Obama took office. However, economists on both sides of the aisle questioned the accuracy of the number, and Republicans continued to claim that job growth is not nearly where it needs to be. 

The October report showed the rate ticking up in part because more people were joining the workforce. The report reflected growth across a number of sectors, including health care and retail and construction. Mining, though, lost 9,000 jobs last month. And average hourly earnings dropped by a penny, to $23.58. 

Obama has said all along that there's more work to do, but has argued that electing Romney would turn back the clock on the recovery. 

Still, the president said shortly after taking office that failing to right the economy in three years would mean a "one-term proposition." 

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a top Romney surrogate, reminded voters that the 7.9 percent rate is far higher than what the administration initially predicted. 

"He promised sweeping reforms that would boost our hurting economy, including a trillion dollar stimulus package that would reduce unemployment to 5.4 percent and policies to reduce the deficit in half by now," he said. 

Romney has called for a new course, and has described the president as out of ideas. On Thursday, he repeatedly mocked Obama for proposing a so-called Department of Business. 

"I just don't think another Cabinet chair is going to create the jobs that America needs," Romney said in Doswell, Va., part of a daylong swing through the battleground state. 

Romney plans to hit rallies in both Wisconsin and Ohio on Friday. Obama will attend three campaign events in Ohio.