Rivals square up over Obama’s claim that economy is ‘healing’

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The final key economic report four days before the US presidential election held something for both candidates yesterday, showing the monthly unemployment rate ticked up slightly but created far more jobs than expected.

Voters will decide on Tuesday between a second term for President Barack Obama or a change to Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

With polls showing the candidates locked in one of the closest presidential contests in recent US history, Mr Obama argues that the economy is well, if slowly, on the road to recovery from the Great Recession. Mr Romney disagrees, calling the jobs report a “sad reminder that the economy is at a virtual standstill”.

Mr Obama will face voters with the highest unemployment rate of any incumbent since Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

US employers added 171,000 jobs in October, and hiring was stronger over the previous two months than first thought. The unemployment rate inched up to 7.9 per cent from 7.8 per cent in September because the work force grew. Unemployment remains below 8 per cent, the lowest rate since Mr Obama took office in January 2009.

While the report could attract undecided voters toward Mr Obama in the closing days of the long and brutal campaign for the White House, the candidates were expected to go into Election Day in a virtual tie.

The economy is easily the biggest issue for voters. Throughout the campaign, Mr Obama has claimed credit for preventing deeper problems. Mr Romney argues the continued economic weakness demonstrates Mr Obama’s policy failures and says his own record as a successful businessman proves he can do better.

Yesterday’s report came after other signs that the economy is on the mend. Most important, consumer confidence is up to its highest level since February of 2008, according to the Conference Board.

“We’re not where we all want to end up, but we are making serious important progress moving forward,” Mr Obama’s senior campaign adviser, Robert Gibbs, said on CBS This Morning before the jobs report was released.

“While more work remains to be done, today’s employment report provides further evidence that the US economy is continuing to heal from the wounds inflicted by the worst downturn since the Great Depression,” said the chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, Alan Krueger.

With the new report in hand, both candidates were plunging into a hectic pace of campaigning, with Mr Obama eager to fend off Mr Romney in the crucial battleground state of Ohio.

Mr Romney pushed to expand the contest to other states, notably Pennsylvania, to secure the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Pennsylvania has routinely backed the Democratic standard-bearer and has been seen as reliably in the Obama column.

Polls show Mr Obama holds a slight lead in a majority of the battleground contests where the outcome of the vote is likely to be determined.

Under the US system, the nationwide popular vote does not determine the winner.

Mr Romney and Mr Obama are actually competing to win at least 270 electoral votes in state-by-state contests.

Those electoral votes are apportioned to states based on a mix of population and representation in Congress.

Mr Obama had three stops in Ohio yesterday. Mr Romney was set to hold two rallies there.

Mr Obama has won the endorsement of New York City’s popular mayor Michael Bloomberg, 
who said Superstorm Sandy had made the election’s stakes even clearer.

Mr Bloomberg, whose city was hit hard, said the climate was changing and that Mr Obama had taken major steps in the right direction on that issue.

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