A fading recovery and weak jobs growth mean President Barack Obama must defy history to win reelection, while Republican Mitt Romney has a fresh chance to market his candidacy.
An economic dip has come at just the wrong time for Obama, just four months before he asks Americans already doubtful over his economic management for a second White House term.
Dreary government jobs data published Friday played right into Romney's hands as he argues that Obama's presidency is a bust, and that he should get the chance to nurse the economy back to health.
No president in more than 70 years has won reelection with the unemployment rate at higher than 7.4 percent. Barring a miracle, that milestone is now out of reach for Obama.
An anemic 80,000 added jobs were all the economy could manage in June, leaving the unemployment rate stubbornly stuck at 8.2 percent, according to Labor Department statistics.
After a power surge at the beginning of the year, the economy, amid slowing growth, is now heading back to the doldrums, having created an average of only around 75,000 jobs over the last three months.
Monthly numbers would have to consistently hit over 160,000 jobs to bring down the unemployment rate: so Obama may even face voters with the top line figure above eight percent.
And with only four monthly jobs reports until the election, time is running out and without an improvement in jobs growth, Obama will come under more and more political pressure each month.
Despite Obama's economic travails, the race has appeared almost frozen in recent months, with the president leading by a few points in national polls and faring better than Romney on the state-by-state political map.
The Supreme Court's validation of his health law and his advantage among crucial Hispanic voters have also boosted Obama's hopes and there are signs his assault on Romney's business record is damaging the Republican.
But Dr. Paul Harrington of the Center For Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University wonders whether Obama can defy political gravity much longer.
"Given the deteriorating jobs (data) and the likelihood we are going to have a poor second quarter in terms of GDP growth, you have to believe this is going to have a substantial impact on how voters turn out and vote in November," Harrington said.
Obama admitted after the jobs numbers were released that "it's tough out there" and sought to broaden the debate from one simply about his economic performance, touting a vision to better the lot of the entire middle class.
On a two-day bus tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania, Obama munched apple pie, downed pints in bars and munched eggs and bacon with tire workers -- but the mood slumped when Friday's job numbers were published.
Obama said that he was not satisfied with the jobs numbers, but insisted the momentum was positive, noting that since the crisis, the economy has created 4.4 million new jobs over the past 28 months.
"That's a step in the right direction," he insisted.
The jobs numbers gave Romney a new chance to recast his message following days of challenging news coverage as conservative critics complained his campaign was too passive and amid rows over his own approach to health care.
"The president's policies have not gotten America working again. And the president is going to have to stand up and take responsibility for it," Romney said Friday.
In recent weeks, the former Massachusetts governor's campaign has appeared cautious, sluggish to respond to Obama's claims he helped outsource US jobs as head of Bain Capital, and some critics suggest Romney is simply hoping a bad economy can help him coast to power.
In a blistering editorial last week, the conservative opinion page of the Wall Street Journal said Romney was enabling Obama's attacks on him as an out-of-touch multi-millionaire.
"The rich man obliged by vacationing this week at his lakeside home with a jet-ski cameo," the paper said, referring to photographs of Romney and his wife Ann buzzing around New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee.
Romney dismisses accusations that he has failed to offer a genuine plan to renew the economy, but some observers disagree.
"Romney has not done a great job articulating how he would reverse the economic fortunes of the nation," said Harrington.
"We have not seen a clear hard statement of 'here is my diagnosis of the problem.'"
The question now may be -- can Obama's message sustain more tough economic news, or can Romney propose a plan that convinces voters it is time for a change?