Suspense builds as Obama and Romney await final job numbers

Voters will get one last update on the nation’s unemployment rate Friday morning, just four days before they head to the polls to choose between the economic visions of President Obama and Mitt Romney.

The report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics — due for release at 8:30 a.m. — will hit like a thunderbolt on the campaign trail as both candidates work to gain an advantage in the final hours of the 2012 contest.

“This could be a push in a direction one way or the other in a very tight race,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “In a tight race, everything is important.”

Last month’s jobless report put the unemployment rate below 8 percent for the first time in Obama’s White House tenure, giving the incumbent a jolt of momentum and a new talking point for his argument about an improving economy.

Analysts expect Friday’s release — which was in doubt earlier this week due to Hurricane Sandy — to show that the economy added between 130,000 and 140,000 jobs in October, though the unemployment rate might increase from 7.8 percent to 7.9 percent.

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Romney previewed his likely response to the report at a campaign rally Thursday, arguing that the slow decline in the unemployment rate is cold comfort for the millions of Americans who remain out of work.

"If the president were to be reelected, we're going to see high levels of unemployment continue, and stalled wage growth, if any wage growth at all, just like we've seen over the last four years," Romney said Thursday during a campaign event in Virginia, a crucial battleground state.

"We know something about the past, we've seen what his polices have produced, the only way to get this economy going is the kind of bold change I've described, real change on day one,” he added.

A spokeswoman for the president said Obama’s case for reelection will remain the same once the labor figures are released.

"The president is still going to feel there’s more we need to do to help the economy recover at a faster rate, put more people back to work," Jen Psaki said Thursday en route to a slate of campaign events. 

"As he says every day and he’ll say today, until everybody who wants a job has a job, his job is not done. And that won’t change."

The candidates have been pushing their messages on the economy in a whirlwind tour of battleground states, and will have to adapt quickly once the latest jobs figures are released.

Obama is on the road to Wisconsin, Nevada, Colorado, Ohio and Iowa, while Romney will spend Friday in Ohio before moving on to New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado and Virginia on Saturday.

O’Connell said whichever campaign receives a boost from the report will largely benefit not because voters will feel better or worse about the economy, but because it will bolster their closing arguments.

Others caution that a single jobs report, which is already prone to statistical quirks and major revisions, is unlikely to be a game changer. 

“Certainly, there will be some last minute undecideds being influenced on this, but at this point, roughly speaking, people haven’t moved very much,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former economic advisor to John McCain’s 2008 campaign.

Jared Bernstein, former chief economic advisor to Vice President Biden, hit the same note Thursday on MSNBC.

“Anyone waiting to decide their vote based on tomorrow’s jobs report should very quickly and very thoroughly reconsider,” Bernstein said, adding that judging a president’s performance from a single jobs report would be “freakin’ nuts!”

Nonetheless, both campaigns will try and spin the latest report in their last-ditch effort to win over voters who are on the fence. 

A solid showing in the labor market could strengthen Obama’s argument that he needs four more years to bring the economic recovery in for a landing. 

But meager job growth or an increase in the unemployment rate could be just what Romney needs to seal the deal.