President Barack Obama and Republican foe Mitt Romney on Friday awaited the last monthly jobs data before their tied-up election, ahead of a frenzied rush through must-win state Ohio.
The rivals, back at one another’s throats after a truce during superstorm Sandy, will hold five rallies between them in the industrial battleground, which will play a huge role in deciding who claims the White House on Tuesday.
Both sides were braced for the last official government unemployment data before the election, which could provide a final twist to a dramatic last month of the campaign rocked by combative debates and Sandy’s wrath.
Though the weak economy is the top issue of the presidential race, many analysts believe that with so few undecided voters left, the Labor Department data is unlikely to be decisive.
But if the unemployment rate were to rise from its current 7.8 percent level after a big fall last month, it could bolster Romney’s argument that Obama is out of ideas to fire up the sluggish economy.
Another drop in the rate, however, could validate Obama’s pitch to any still wavering voters that he saved the country from a second Great Depression in 2009 and is now poised to deliver a return to prosperity.
Obama on Thursday appeared on the campaign trail for the first time since Sandy roared ashore on Monday with hurricane force winds and murderous flood tides along the northeast coast, killing at least 92 people.
“Even in the midst of tragedy, the situation on the East Coast has also inspired, because it reminds us that when disaster strikes, we see America at its best,” Obama said in Wisconsin.
“All the petty differences that consume us in normal times somehow melt away. There are no Democrats or Republicans during a storm, just fellow Americans — leaders of different parties working to fix what’s broken.”
Obama leapt at the opportunity to showcase his leadership skills during the storm as he marshaled the federal government’s emergency response effort.
The president toned down some of the raw partisanship of his electoral message, but moved to stop Romney appropriating the change mantle he used to win the White House in 2008.
“Governor Romney has been using all his talents as a salesman to dress up these very same policies that failed our country so badly, the very same policies we’ve been cleaning up after for the past four years — and he is offering them up as change,” Obama said.
“What the governor is offering sure ain’t change. Getting more power back to the biggest banks isn’t change. Leaving millions without health insurance isn’t change.”
Romney, struggling to recapture the initiative after being sidelined by Sandy, made three stops in battleground Virginia, where he sought to refocus the race on his strongest argument: the listless economy.
“I know the Obama folks are chanting ‘four more years,’” Romney told supporters in Roanoke, Virginia. “But our chant is this: ‘Five more days!’”
With Romney’s team confident it can score at least a few upset victories in Democrat-leaning states, his campaign said the Republican would stump for votes in Pennsylvania on Sunday, just 48 hours before election day.
Pennsylvania has been in Obama’s column for months, with the latest Real Clear Politics average of polls showing the incumbent up 4.6 percentage points in the large, eastern state.
But Romney aides dismiss polls as giving an incomplete picture in many states where they feel the challenger has built recent momentum that could deliver a stronger-than-expected turnout.
The Obama campaign earlier this week said Romney was desperate in sizing up Pennsylvania — where Republican John McCain lost to Obama by 600,000 votes in 2008, and said it was a sign Romney’s path to the White House is narrowing.
Obama will hold rallies on Friday across Ohio, where he plans to tell voters how he will create jobs over the next four years.
Romney, meanwhile, will be chasing Obama’s tail in Wisconsin, before heading to Ohio to hold a big evening rally with running mate Paul Ryan and family members in West Chester, near the Republican stronghold of Cincinnati.
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 Thursday 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 all 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.
Romney’s team believes he is well placed after a flurry of polls showing him doing better than Obama among independent voters, but Obama got a boost with that bloc on Thursday with the endorsement of New York mayor and popular independent politician Michael Bloomberg.