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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The presidential candidates are back on the campaign trail, sprinting, now that the political conventions are behind them. President Obama and Mitt Romney were both in Iowa and New Hampshire yesterday. Both of their message were affected by some bad news on the job's front as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The celebratory confetti had barely stopped falling on the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte when a report from the Labor Department popped the president's political balloon. U.S. employers added just 96,000 jobs last month, a far slower pace of hiring than forecasters had expected.
The unemployment rate ticked down a bit, to 8.1 percent, but only because hundreds of thousands of people had given up looking for work. The report offered fresh ammunition for Mitt Romney to attack the president's handling of the economy. Romney said if Thursday night's convention was a party for the Democrats, Friday morning's jobs report was the hangover.
MITT ROMNEY: This president tried, but he didn't understand what it takes to make our economy work. I do. I will use that experience to get Americans to work again.
HORSLEY: Romney says he can do that by boosting energy production, striking new trade deals and balancing the budget even as he's cutting taxes. Mr. Obama argues that Romney's arithmetic doesn't add up. But Romney supporter Todd Slitter, who's pastor at two churches in Iowa, says he's ready for a change.
TODD SLITTER: Obama claims to be going forward. I see that he's going backward. I'm voting against him. I just want Romney to win. I want him to defeat Obama.
HORSLEY: The White House notes that even with Friday's tepid jobs number, private employers on average have added more jobs in the last two-and-a-half years than they did during the George W. Bush recovery. That's little consolation, though. Mr. Obama has a much deeper hole to climb out of.
The president typically sees the jobs numbers the day before they're made public, which might explain Mr. Obama's somewhat subdued delivery at the convention Thursday night. The president told supporters in New Hampshire yesterday, the economy needs to do better.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We know it's not good enough. We need to create more jobs faster. We need to fill the hole left by this recession faster. We need to come out of this crisis stronger than when we went in. And there's a lot more that we can do.
HORSLEY: For a year now, the president's been urging lawmakers to pass a jobs act, with money for teachers, firefighters and public works. But except for a scaled-down payroll tax cut, almost none of his proposals have cleared Congress. Martha Ann Crawford, who makes quilts and sells antiques in Iowa, thinks the economy might be in better shape if lawmakers were more cooperative.
MARTHA ANN CRAWFORD: He's done his best and he needs to be able to continue. Absolutely. I want him to have four more years.
HORSLEY: Mr. Obama and his campaign aides have criticized Romney's alternative agenda. They say the GOP plan is not so much a cure for the nation's hangover, as another dose of the toxic brew that made the economy sick, including rolled back regulations and tax cuts weighted towards the wealthy.
OBAMA: Tax cuts when times are good. Tax cuts when times are bad. Tax cuts to help you lose a few extra pounds. Tax cuts to improve your love life. It will cure anything, according to them.
HORSLEY: The president's advisors say they're encouraged that more Americans seem to be treating the race as a choice between two competing economic roadmaps, rather than a referendum on Mr. Obama's own economic stewardship.
Mr. Obama got an assist this week from Bill Clinton, who did much of the heavy lifting of defending the president's record and contrasting it with Romney's. The former president's Wednesday night convention speech drew rave reviews.
OBAMA: Somebody emailed me after his speech and said, you need to appoint him secretary of explaining stuff.
HORSLEY: Most voters have already made up their minds about the presidential race, so Mr. Obama's political advisor, David Plouffe, doesn't expect any wild swing in the polls as a result of the two parties' conventions. By this time next week, he expects the race to be about where it was before the conventions started, with Mr. Obama enjoying a small but significant lead in most of the critical battleground states.
If that forecast is right, Plouffe says, it would be a problem for Mitt Romney. But as yesterday's surprise on the jobs front showed, forecasting is a tricky business.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Iowa City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.