The figures announced by the Labor Department — 114,000 new jobs last month to bring unemployment to 7.8 percent — gave Obama fresh evidence to support his argument that his economic policies are working. Romney countered that the country can't afford four more years of the president's leadership and said he would lead a recovery with pro-growth policies for job creation and rising income.
"This is not what a real recovery looks like," the former Massachusetts governor said in a statement less than an hour after the jobless figures were released. He pointed to millions of people still struggling to find work, living in poverty and using food stamps to feed their families. He also argued that the rate is low in part because some people have quit looking for work.
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 were headed Friday to opposite ends of one of those early voting states, Virginia. Romney was campaigning for support in the state's far western coal country while Obama was rallying students at George Mason University in the Washington suburbs.
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 — a squabble that has even injected Big Bird into the race.
"I just want to make sure I've got this straight: He'll get rid of regulations on Wall Street, but he's going to crack down on 'Sesame Street'?" Obama said Thursday in Madison, Wis., referring to Romney's statement in the debate that he would cut a federal subsidy for PBS, which airs "Sesame Street." ''Thank goodness somebody's finally cracking down on Big Bird."
In an interview with Fox News Channel, Romney took on his disparaging comments about the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes, saying the remarks that have dogged his campaign for the last week were wrong.
"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."
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 released three new ads on Friday, offering a window into his strategy for the coming week. One, called "Facts Are Clear," focuses on the national debt and accuses Obama of wasting trillions of dollars instead of creating jobs. A second spot features Greg Anthony, a former professional basketball player from Nevada, talking about his roots in that state and his switch from backing Obama in 2008 to Romney this year.
The third spot is titled, simply, "Ohio Jobs." It features Romney looking straight at the camera to talk to voters from the Midwestern battleground state seen as critical to his White House hopes. Obama was also campaigning in Ohio on Friday.
Obama's team countered with an ad targeting Romney's tax plan, accusing him of planning to raise taxes on the middle class. The ad was airing in seven battleground states.
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, White House senior adviser David 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.
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in Virginia contributed to this report.