COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney each got new evidence to bolster his closing argument Friday from an economic report showing more job creation and an uptick in unemployment.
With that final snapshot of the nation's economy before Election Day in hand, both candidates were plunging into a hectic pace of campaigning. Obama was eager to fend off Romney in the key battleground of Ohio even as Romney pushed to expand the contest to other states, most notably Pennsylvania, to secure the 270 electoral votes needed to win.
The Labor Department reported that U.S. employers added 171,000 jobs in October and that hiring was stronger over the previous two months than first thought. The unemployment rate inched up to 7.9 percent from 7.8 percent in September because the workforce grew.
As an economic marker, the report sketched a picture of a job market that is gradually gaining momentum after nearly stalling in the spring. More jobs were created than predicted, and the higher rate means more people are returning to the labor force, since the government only counts people as unemployed if they are actively searching for work.
As a political marker, it gives Romney a data point to attack. Obama will face voters with the highest unemployment rate of any incumbent since Franklin Roosevelt.
"Today's increase in the unemployment rate is a sad reminder that the economy is at a virtual standstill," Romney said in a 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."
Still, the jobs report alone is unlikely to sway voters. Few if any remain undecided and they have shown throughout the year not to be susceptible to positive or negative monthly changes in the unemployment rate.
Friday's report comes amid other signs that the economy is on the mend. Most important, consumer confidence is up to its highest level since February 2008, according to the Conference Board. Other signposts this week showed auto companies with sales gains in October and increases in factory orders and production.
"While more work remains to be done, 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," Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Alan Krueger said in a statement distributed in response to the jobs report by the White House. "It is critical that we continue the policies that are building an economy that works for the middle class as we dig our way out of the deep hole that was caused by the severe recession that began in December 2007."
Ohio loomed large on the campaign calendar Friday, with Obama scheduling three stops in that crucial battleground. He had larger rallies in more urban areas elsewhere planned for the weekend. Romney was set to hold two rallies in Ohio — the second a large evening kickoff for the final weekend of campaigning with running mate Paul Ryan, their wives and performer Kid Rock.
Romney, who doesn't usually speak from a written text at campaign events, but planned to outline his closing pitch in prepared remarks at an event earlier Friday in Wisconsin.
But while Ohio was emerging as the most contested state in the final push, Romney and the Republican Party were launching a new drive into Pennsylvania, a state that had been considered safely in Obama's column. Romney planned to campaign in the state Sunday and the Republican National Committee was putting $3 million in ads into Pennsylvania.
Romney aides said they detected that Obama was underperforming in the southeastern counties around Philadelphia, a usual Democratic stronghold, and in the working-class area in and around Scranton. Obama won the state handily in 2008, largely on the strength of his performance in the eastern part of the state. The RNC, however, says its voter outreach program has already exceeded its performance four years ago, with three times more phone calls and 19 more door knocks than at this time in 2008.
Obama aides dismissed the eleventh-hour move as an act of desperation that underscored Romney's weakness in other battlegrounds but said the Democratic campaign would increase its ad purchases in the state to respond to the RNC incursion.
"It means the Romney-Ryan campaign is desperate to try to figure out how to win this race outside of the states that they've been contesting it in for 15 months,"Obama senior campaign adviser Robert Gibbs said on "CBS This Morning." ''Look, John McCain spent the last weekend in 2008 in Pennsylvania in a desperate attempt to do this as well."
Romney's campaign on Friday released a memo claiming likely victory in Iowa. "The thrill is gone. And in Iowa, the Obama firewall is burning," strategist David Kochel wrote.
Kochel pointed to newspaper endorsements — particularly from the Des Moines Register, which had backed Democrats for 40 years until recently endorsing Romney — and to early vote totals. Romney's campaign insists Democratic early voting leads are small enough that Republicans will be able to overcome them on Election Day.
Obama planned to take Romney on directly in Ohio on Friday over the Republican's ads on the auto industry bailout, campaign aides said. The ads accuse Obama of taking General Motors and Chrysler into bankruptcy, selling Chrysler to an Italian company and building Jeeps in China. Chrysler and GM have protested the ads and disputed the suggestion that Jeep construction was being transferred overseas.
Vice President Joe Biden has reacted sharply to the ads, calling them "one of the most flagrantly dishonest ads I can ever remember in my political career." But Obama has yet to weigh in directly, in part because much of his week was dominated by managing the federal response to Superstorm Sandy.
Amid all the signs of escalation, there were also signs that Election Day was nigh.
Outside the White House, workers were erecting fencing on Pennsylvania Avenue, setting the groundwork for building the inaugural viewing stand and the camera platform in nearby Lafayette Park.
Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler in Washington, Ken Thomas in Columbus, Ohio, and Steve Peoples and Kasie Hunt in Norfolk, Va., contributed to this report.