US President Barack Obama evaded a last-minute time bomb on Friday as the economy pumped out more jobs than expected in October, delivering a boost to his re-election hopes as the final weekend of campaigning begins.
Republican Mitt Romney, however, seized on an uptick in the jobless rate by a tenth of a point to 7.9% to bemoan an economy at a "virtual standstill," and said Americans would choose on Tuesday between prosperity and stagnation.
After several weeks of polls suggesting a neck-and-neck race, there were new signs that Obama's position, as he seeks a second term, may be solidifying.
National polls of the popular vote now mostly show a tied race or with either man up one point -- but with time running out Obama's line of defense in key battleground states seems to be holding.
All polling leads were within the margin of error, however, and both campaigns, though expressing confidence, will face a nervous night as results roll in on Tuesday and test their assumptions about the race.
Obama, perhaps mindful of millions of Americans suffering from the lingering impact of the worst recession since the 1930s, avoided a triumphal tone on the jobs data that sent relief rippling through his campaign team.
"We have made real progress," Obama said, in Hilliard, on the first stop of a day-long swing through small towns in Ohio, which could be a tipping point state in a tied-up election.
Romney quickly highlighted the fact that, although the economy is creating jobs at a moderate pace, unemployment remains at historically high levels.
"For four years, President Obama's policies have crushed America's middle class," Romney said in a statement.
"When I'm president, I'm going to make real changes that lead to a real recovery, so that the next four years are better than the last," said Romney, who started his day in Wisconsin and ended it in Ohio.
The release of the final major economic data before the election had worried Obama aides who feared that a leap in the rate above the psychological eight% mark could have sent late-deciding voters to Romney.
But although the data was far from spectacular -- with 171,000 jobs created last month -- there was enough in the report, including upward revisions of previous monthly figures, for Obama to argue the economy was improving.
Many analysts doubted that barring a disastrous slump in the data, there would be much impact on the election, but the upped pace of job creation does perhaps explain Obama's stable position in some midwestern swing states.
The figures by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics were an apt metaphor for the entire campaign, revealing an economic recovery neither bad enough to doom Obama nor sufficiently robust to get him re-elected at a canter.
The president, who has turned down the raw partisanship of his rhetoric to match the national mood after superstorm Sandy tore ashore, claiming 95 US lives, nevertheless sought to dismantle Romney's closing argument.
He repudiated the Republican's claim to being an agent of change, accusing him instead of trying to "massage the facts," highlighting a Romney ad that claims that Chrysler plans to outsource jobs to China to produce its Jeep vehicles.
"I know we are close to an election, but this isn't a game. These are people's jobs. These are people's lives," Obama said, noting that auto bosses had directly contradicted Romney on the attack.
The president repeatedly touts his decision to bail out indebted US automakers in a politically unpopular 2009 move that helped restore the industry to health.
One in eight jobs in Ohio are linked to the sector, and Romney's opposition to the bailout has emerged as a liability for the Republican.
Heading into the last 72 hours of campaigning before polls open, Romney displayed his camp's unity by bringing together his former primary rivals Rick Santorum and Rick Perry on stage, along with Obama's 2008 rival John McCain.
In all, 45 lawmakers and relatives of the candidate and runningmate Paul Ryan -- wearing Romney jackets -- attended the rally in West Chester, near the Republican stronghold of Cincinnati.
"We're almost home. One final push will get us there," Romney said before a crowd police estimated to be at least 18,000 strong.
"We are so very, very close. The door to a brighter future is there, it's open, it's waiting for us."
A CNN/Opinion Research poll showed Obama up three points in Ohio, raising his average in the RealClearPolitics aggregate of opinion surveys in the state to 2.4 points.
The president also leads Romney in enough of the eight or so swing states to assure himself of the 270 electoral votes needed for re-election, if polling data is confirmed by voting.
Romney's team, however, insists that its man has momentum and that public polls overestimate likely Democratic turnout, and also predict that the Republican's advantage among independent voters will prove decisive.