President Barack Obama dodged a potential last-minute blow to his re-election hopes Friday, with the release of data showing the US economy created more jobs than expected last month.
Republican Mitt Romney, however, seized on an uptick in the jobless rate by a tenth of point to 7.9 percent to bemoan an economy at a "virtual standstill" and said Americans would choose on Tuesday between prosperity and stagnation
Obama, perhaps mindful of millions of Americans suffering from the lingering impact of the worst recession since the 1930s, avoided a triumphal tone on data which sent relief rippling through his campaign team.
"We have made real progress," Obama said, in his first rally of the day, in Hilliard, a small town in crucial electoral territory around the city of Columbus, in Ohio, which could be a tipping point state in a tied-up election.
"Companies hired more workers in October than at any time in the last eight months," Obama said.
Romney quickly highlighted the fact that though the economy is creating jobs at a moderate pace, unemployment remains at historically high levels.
"For four years, President Obama's policies have crushed America's middle class," 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," said Romney, who started his day in Wisconsin but was also headed to Ohio.
The release of the final major economic data before the election had jangled nerves of Obama aides who feared that a leap in the rate above the psychological eight percent mark could have sent late-deciding voters to Romney.
But although the data was far from spectacular -- with 171,000 jobs created last month -- there was enough in the report, including upward revisions of previous monthly figures, for Obama to argue the economy was improving.
The consensus of economic analysts had been for job creation of around 125,000 in October.
Many analysts doubted that barring a disastrous slump in the data, there would be much impact on the election, but the upped pace of job creation does perhaps explain Obama's stable position in some midwestern swing states.
And the figures by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics were an apt metaphor for the entire campaign, revealing an economic recovery neither bad enough to doom Obama nor sufficiently robust to get him re-elected at a canter.
The president, who has turned down the raw partisanship of his rhetoric to match the national mood after superstorm Sandy tore ashore, claiming 95 US lives, nevertheless sought to dismantle Romney's closing argument.
He repudiated the Republican's claim to be an agent of change, accusing him instead of trying to "massage the facts," highlighting a Romney ad that claims that Chrysler plans to outsource jobs to China to produce its Jeep vehicles.
"It is not true. Everybody knows that it is not true," Obama said, noting that auto firm bosses had directly contradicted Romney on the attack.
"I know we are close to an election, but this isn't a game. These are people's jobs. These are people's lives."
The president repeatedly touts his decision to bail out indebted US auto makers in a politically unpopular move in 2009, which has helped restore the industry to health.
One in eight jobs in Ohio are linked to the sector, and Romney's opposition to the bailout has emerged as a liability for the Republican.
Romney had two rallies planned in Ohio Friday, including a big one with running mate Paul Ryan and family members in West Chester, near the Republican stronghold of Cincinnati.
"Four years ago, candidate Obama promised to do so very much, but he has fallen so very short," Romney said in his first stop in rust belt Wisconsin, touting his past as a successful businessman to build the case he can create jobs.
"President Obama promised change, but he could not deliver it. I promise change, and I have a record of achieving it," said Romney, looking every inch the corporate turnaround artist in a sharp dark suit and tie.
Most recent polls show Obama up in Ohio, by between two and five points, and Romney cannot afford to give up on a state which every modern Republican president has won on the way to winning the White House.
With just four days of campaigning left, neither campaign, despite their bravado, can be completely confident about the result.
The RealClearPolitics average of national polls Friday showed a tie, though Obama appears better positioned than Romney in many of the less than a dozen swing states that will decide the election.
But the president's leads were within the margin of error, lending some credence to the Romney camp's belief that many of Obama's 2008 voters will not show up and that the intensity of Republican voters will be decisive.