President Barack Obama celebrated much-needed good economic news in Virginia Friday as the unemployment rate dropped to its lowest level since he took office. “We are moving forward again,” he boasted. Republican rival Mitt Romney -- also campaigning in the battleground state -- retorted that the president still hasn't done enough to help millions of people who are out of work, while a protester dressed as Big Bird made a plea for jobs on “Sesame Street.”
The figures announced by the Labor Department -- 114,000 new jobs last month to bring the unemployment rate to 7.8 percent -- gave Obama fresh evidence on the heels of his disappointing debate performance to argue that his economic policies are working. Romney countered that the country can't afford four more years of the president's leadership and argued that the rate is low in part because some people have quit looking for work.
“These are tough times in this community,” Romney told a rally outside a construction equipment store after meeting with coal miners who have been laid off. “We're going to bring back jobs and bring back America.”
Obama responded that Romney wants to roll back policies that are repairing the economic damage.
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“Today's news certainly is not an excuse to try to talk down the economy to score a few political points,” Obama said. “It is a reminder that the country has come too far to turn back now.”
Outside Romney’s appearance at Carter Machinery in Abingdon, Va., the demonstrator dressed as Big Bird carried a sign reading “Cut Big Oil Not PBS” in response to the Republican candidate’s comment to PBS anchor Jim Lehrer at Wednesday night’s debate that he would cut funding to PBS.
"I'm sorry Jim, I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS," Romney said. "I'm going to stop other things. I like PBS, I love Big Bird. I actually like you too, but I'm not going to keep spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for them."
In Fairfax, Va., Obama embraced the public television icon.
“So for all you moms and kids out there, don’t worry -- someone is finally getting tough on Big Bird,” he quipped. “Rounding him up. Elmo has got to watch out, too. Gov. Romney plans to let Wall Street run wild again, but he’s going to bring down the hammer on ‘Sesame Street.’ It makes perfect sense.”
The unemployment rate fell from 8.1 percent in August, matching its level in January 2009 when Obama became president. There is one more monthly unemployment report before Election Day, so Friday's numbers could leave a lasting impact on Americans who are already casting ballots in states that allow early voting.
The candidates campaigned Friday on opposite ends of one of those early voting states, Virginia. Romney, in the state's far western coal country, said he wants to develop coal and other domestic resources to make the United States energy independent in eight years. Obama focused on recruiting women at an appearance at George Mason University in the Washington suburbs, where he argued that his health care policy has improved their health care choices.
Obama, seeking to rebound after Romney dominated their first debate Wednesday night, is accusing his rival of being dishonest about how his policies would affect the tax bills of middle-class families and the Medicare benefits of retirees. He told an audience at George Mason University that his rival “got an extreme makeover” in their face-off.
He also argued Romney can't bring change to the country when he's “willing to write off half the nation before you take office,” a reference to Romney's disparaging remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes. Romney made the comments at a fundraiser in May that was secretly recorded, but the videotape did not emerge until last month. Romney went as far as he's ever gone to try to take back his words in an interview Thursday night with Fox News.
“Well, clearly in a campaign, with hundreds if not thousands of speeches and question-and-answer sessions, now and then you're going to say something that doesn't come out right,” Romney said Thursday. “In this case, I said something that's just completely wrong.”
At the White House, senior adviser David Plouffe retorted: “I would take with a huge grain of salt trying to clean something up five months after you said it for the first time.”
The next presidential debate is not until Oct. 16, a town hall-style meeting at Hofstra University in New York, giving both sides ample opportunities to blanket battleground states and raise money for the final weeks of television advertising.
Romney planned a rally later in the day in St. Petersburg, Fla., kicking off a weekend of campaigning in that state, the largest of the prized battlegrounds. Obama was holding a Friday rally in Cleveland before heading to California on Sunday for a fundraising spree that will include a concert in Los Angeles featuring Jon Bon Jovi, Katy Perry and Stevie Wonder.
Traveling aboard Air Force One, Plouffe foreshadowed an intense focus on Ohio in the coming weeks, where polls have shifted in Obama's favor. No Republican has won the presidency without winning Ohio, and Obama's campaign sees blocking Romney there as one of its best paths to victory.
Plouffe said the true measure of the first debate was whether it moved voters in the battleground states. Speaking of Romney, Plouffe said: “Is he going to take the lead in Ohio? If he doesn't, he's not going to be president,” he said.