CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — His convention over, President Barack Obama ran smack into the harsh reality of a bleak new report on the nation's unemployment outlook Friday. Republican rival Mitt Romney pounced on the jobs figures as fresh evidence that it's time to put someone new in the Oval Office.
"We're going in the wrong direction," the GOP nominee said flatly.
The candidates both campaign Friday in New Hampshire and Iowa, improbable battleground states in the too-close-to-call race. Their campaigning is sure to be dominated by the new Labor Department report showing that U.S. employers added just 96,000 jobs last month, failing to meet expectations.
The unemployment rate fell to 8.1 percent from 8.3 percent in July, but only because more people gave up looking for work.
"There's almost nothing the president's done in the last three and a half, four years to give the American people confidence he knows what he's doing when it comes to jobs and the economy," Romney told reporters in Sioux City, Iowa.
He told Fox News the latest jobs report was a "continuation of very bleak news on the employment front" and that it signals a "continued pattern, which is that we're not creating the jobs we need to create to put Americans back to work."
Obama, for his part, made a low-profile departure from his convention city en route to New Hampshire. He left it to Alan Krueger, chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers, to frame the jobs report as "further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression."
Krueger added that it was "important not to read too much into any one monthly report."
Republicans chose to ignore that advice.
"This is not even close to what a recovery looks like," GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan said in an interview on CNBC. "I would argue this is the result of failed leadership in Washington, bad fiscal policy coming from the administration."
Party leaders in Congress released statements offering rival spin on the meaning of the figures.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the report "underscores President Obama's failed promises to get our economy moving again."
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said Obama and the Democrats had plenty of plans to create more jobs and boost the economy but Republicans "keep standing in the way of growth and certainty for our economy."
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt tried to shift the focus to what he said were failings in Romney's economic plans, referring back to the GOP convention in Florida last month and the track record of the Bush administration.
"In Tampa, Mitt Romney didn't offer one idea that would create good-paying, sustainable jobs for the middle class," LaBolt said in a statement. "Gov. Romney has yet to explain how returning to policies that crashed the economy and devastated the middle class would now have the opposite impact."
Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs was up early to pronounce that the Democratic convention had achieved its goals. Speaking before the jobs numbers were released, the adviser said the president "understands we still have a long way to go" to strengthen the economy.
Gibbs acknowledged there's a far different dynamic to this race than the excitement and novelty that were associated with Obama's historic first run for the White House.
"This isn't 2008, we understand that," he said on "CBS This Morning."
The November election could turn on whether voters see the economy as improving, remaining stagnant or getting worse under Obama.
Friday's numbers gave both campaigns something to work with. Supporters of the president focused on the drop to 8.1 percent, suggesting it shows the economy is on the mend, if slowly. Republicans kept their eyes on the raw job numbers.
Either way, the numbers suggest that not much has happened over the past month to change the overall picture of a painfully slow recovery.
Romney and the Republicans argue that three years of unemployment above 8 percent and minimal economic growth are valid reasons to fire Obama after one term. The incumbent contends that, having inherited one of the worst economic crises in history, he needs more time to turn the nation around.
"I won't pretend the path I'm offering is quick or easy. I never have," Obama told Democrats at their convention Thursday night. "You didn't elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth. And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades."
For the candidates, the two months to Nov. 6 promise a high-stakes mix of debates, multiple appearances in a dozen battleground states and hours of campaign speeches. Both will be scrapping for the precious commodity of electoral votes to reach the winning number of 270, leaving no competitive state quiet this fall. The airwaves will be inundated with ads from the campaigns and outside groups, with Romney likely to have more money to spend.
The GOP nominee has new ads running in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia — mapping out many of the key battleground states where the race will play out. His campaign has purchased about $4.5 million in television advertising for the next several days, according to officials who track such spending.
The themes of those ads — deficit, home values, defense, over-regulation, manufacturing, energy, families — offer a preview of some of the issues sure to dominate the conversation in coming weeks.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with their wives, campaign Friday in New Hampshire — it offers four electoral votes — and Iowa — six votes — before the president ends the day in Florida, the highest-count swing state with 29.
While Romney hits Iowa and New Hampshire, too, his wife, Ann, presses for votes in Virginia — 13 electoral votes — and his running mate, Ryan, focuses on Nevada — six votes. The battleground list includes Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Associated Press writer Tom Beaumont in Sioux City, Iowa, contributed to this report.