President Barack Obama charged back onto the campaign trail on Friday and faced a withering attack from Republican rival Mitt Romney over disappointing new U.S. jobs numbers as the candidates sought to emphasize their differences in states crucial to the battle for the White House. Just hours after basking in his supporters' adulation at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Obama was hit by a stark reminder of the challenge he faces convincing voters to give him a second term despite stubbornly high unemployment on his watch.
As the candidates launched the final two-month drive to Election Day, the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll showed Obama getting at least a small bounce from his convention, taking a narrow lead of 46 percent to Romney's 44 percent among likely voters. Romney previously led by 45 percent to Obama's 44 percent.
The latest polling was conducted before the Labor Department reported on Friday that U.S. employers added a lower-than-expected 96,000 jobs in August, which could ensure that any "bump" in popular support for Obama is limited and brief. The grim economic news dimmed the afterglow from the convention where Obama on Thursday night accepted his party's nomination and appealed to Americans for more time and patience to finish his economic agenda.
Pouncing on the jobs data to slam Obama's handling of the economy - the top concern of voters - Romney called the figures "another disappointing, sad report." Romney said that Obama "just doesn't know what it takes to get America strong again. And I do. And I'm going to bring it back," Romney said at a rally.
While noting the private sector had now generated jobs for 30 straight months, Obama acknowledged: "It's not good enough. We need to create more jobs faster." At the same time, he pointed out that Republicans in Congress had blocked much of his jobs plan and accused Romney of making promises to revitalize the economy but not telling voters how he would do it. "I honestly believe this is the clearest choice that we've had in my lifetime," Obama said at a later rally. "It's a choice between two fundamentally different visions of our future, where America goes."
Obama took to the campaign trail with his wife, Michelle, and Vice President Joe Biden and his wife a day after his nationally televised acceptance speech capped two weeks of back-to-back nominating conventions for Democrats and Republicans. Obama's acceptance speech drew the largest TV audience of this year's political conventions and ranked as the biggest political moment ever on social media site Twitter. The end of the conventions opened the last phase of a White House battle that polls show is deadlocked amid deep voter anxiety about the economy.
BACK TO CAMPAIGN TRAIL
The latest jobs data could give a boost to Romney, the former head of a private equity firm who has made his business experience the centerpiece of his campaign. He argues he's uniquely qualified to create job growth and says Obama is not up to the job. The Obama campaign has sought to undermine Romney's argument by pointing out some firms he invested in ended up cutting jobs or shipping them overseas.
Obama, who entered office during the darkest days of the 2007-2009 recession, has brought unemployment down from a peak of 10 percent in his first year, but has been unable to crack the 8 percent barrier, a fact Romney's camp has stressed. "This is not even close to what a recovery looks like," Paul Ryan, Romney's vice presidential running mate, told CNBC. Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the Romney-Ryan approach was not the answer, saying that would mean "going back to the same policies that led us to the crisis that we've been going through to begin with."
The unemployment data still raise doubts whether Obama will get anything more than a limited, and short-lived boost, from the convention. Obama senior adviser David Plouffe sought to play down expectations, saying he did not expect any major shift in voter sentiment. "We come out of the convention with momentum. That doesn't mean the race is going to change significantly," he told reporters traveling with Obama.
Obama and Romney campaigned on Friday in the toss-up states of New Hampshire and Iowa, which could be critical to piecing together the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.They are among eight to 10 battleground states that are likely to decide the election, a list that also includes Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Colorado, Nevada and Wisconsin. Those states have been flooded by tens of millions of dollars in TV ads by the campaigns, and hundreds of millions more from outside groups allied with the two candidates.
Obama is spending the weekend on a bus tour of Florida, while Romney heads to Virginia for campaign events on Saturday. Obama dismissed Romney and Ryan as foreign policy neophytes and mocked the Republican nominee for offending British leaders by criticizing London's handling of the Olympic Games while on an overseas trip there.
Seeking to turn the tables on Obama, Romney said on Friday he had only been speaking to the British in a straightforward way, and faulted the president for what he said was a failure to talk tough enough with China about trade and currency practices.
"The message from last night was that the president's plan is four more years of the four last years. And I don't think the American people want four more years of the four last years," Romney said.
Democrats said they were pleased with the three-day convention, which they say could help reignite supporters' enthusiasm. The next big event on the political calendar is the first of three presidential debates on October 3 in Denver.
(Additional reporting by Margaret Chadbourn, Lucia Mutikani, Lisa Lambert)