“I’d like to see that labor force participation go up a lot more, which is continuing to be problematic," Santorum said.

Republican front-runner Mitt Romney did not mention the new numbers directly during a campaign event in South Carolina but continued to hit Obama on the economy.

"This president doesn't understand how the economy works," Romney said. "It's time to get a president who does."

"He has failed to put American back to work," Romney added. "Remember it was early in his administration, he said, 'Look if you let me borrow $787 billion, why I will be able to keep unemployment from going above 8 percent. Well, it went past 8 percent, and it hasn't been back since, three years later."

Later, his campaign issued a statement blaming Obama's policies for slowing economic growth.

“Of course it is good news fewer Americans are out of work, but thirty-five consecutive months of unemployment above 8 percent is no cause for celebration," Romney said. "Under President Obama, we have lost 1.7 million jobs — America deserves better. Eventually our economy will recover, America always does. But President Obama’s policies have slowed the recovery and created misery for 24 million Americans who are unemployed, or stuck in part-time jobs when what they really want is full-time work. As President, I will refuse to accept high unemployment as the ‘new normal’ for our economy.” 

Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich referred to the unemployment picture as a "tragedy."

"Today’s new December unemployment figure doesn’t capture the full scale of the tragedy: almost 24 million Americans still unemployed, working part-time for economic reasons, or discouraged from looking for work," Gingrich said in a statement. "The Obama experiment has failed, and it is time to look to proven solutions that have successfully empowered job-creators in the past."

Administration officials and congressional Democrats praised the improving job numbers early Friday.

"Today’s employment report provides further evidence that the economy is continuing to heal from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression," said Alan Krueger, Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. "It is critical that we continue the economic policies that are helping us to dig our way out of the deep hole that was caused by the recession that began at the end of 2007."