WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney, locked in a super tight U.S. presidential race, both argued that numbers in the latest jobs report bolster their position that they are best equipped to fix the economy.
Romney, meanwhile, received a celebrity boost Friday night when Clint Eastwood endorsed the Republican at a fundraiser in Idaho.
The latest numbers showed monthly job creation was higher than expected - but unemployment also increased. That gave each candidate political room to see only what he wanted, and to stick with the fundamental economic argument that he thinks will win the White House.
The numbers came exactly three months shy of Election Day.
"It's another hammer blow to the struggling middle-class families of America," Romney said of the pace of job growth, assailing Obama's record from a Las Vegas trucking business.
At the White House, Obama surrounded himself with some of those families, playing up 29 straight months that private employers have added jobs.
"Those are our neighbors and families finding work," Obama said. "But, let's acknowledge, we've still got too many folks out there who are looking for work."
The economy is stuck and not growing enough to reduce unemployment or make people feel better. No signs of help are coming from a gridlocked Congress, or from the Federal Reserve, or from U.S. allies with their own problems as the world economy suffers.
That means the economy voters have now may be the one they get when it's time to pick a president.
The bright spot: Employers added 163,000 jobs in July, more than double that of June. Yet the politically important unemployment rate rose to 8.3 percent, a notch above June's 8.2 percent.
Only three such jobs reports remain before the election: One in September, the day after Obama speaks at the Democratic National Convention; one in October shortly after the two men debate on the economy; and one in November a mere four days before the election.
Whatever the monthly ups and downs, the big picture shows that the largest economy in the world has yet to take off: The 151,000 jobs added on average each month this year is almost the same monthly average as last year.
No economic recovery since World War II has been weaker than the current rebound from the recession that ended in June 2009.
A status-quo economy means the campaign arguments and strategies are not changing, either.
Obama and Romney will keep punching it out in largely negative advertising and personal appearances in about eight states expected to determine the state-by-state election's outcome. Much of the rest of America will be left to give money, volunteer or watch from the sidelines.
Obama's locked-in message is about asking the richest Americans to pay higher taxes, extending tax cuts for the middle class, and promising long-run economic growth by putting public money into education, energy and research. He has seized on a report that concluded Romney's plan would raise middle-class taxes.
Meanwhile, Romney's aides have long believed only a dramatic uptick in the economy could hurt his chances and force a broad change in messaging.
So one month of stronger-than-expected job growth did nothing to alter Romney's case that "America can do better." Capitalizing on an Obama vulnerability - public disapproval of the president's handling of the economy - Romney portrays himself as the change agent with the business background for the demands of the day.
He is promising to create 12 million jobs over four years, a pace that would demand nearly 90,000 more jobs every month than were created in July. Yet he has offered few specifics to back up that ambitious projection, outlining a broad economic agenda of trade, energy, and lower taxes, spending and regulation.
Obama used the new numbers to fuel his own narrative of an American economy headed in the right direction.
"We knew when I started in this job that this was going to take some time," Obama said. "We haven't had to come back from an economic crisis this deep or this painful since the 1930s. But we also knew that if we were persistent, if we kept at it and kept working, that we'd gradually get to where we need to be."
The economy lost 8.7 million jobs in the recession and its aftermath. Since then, it has regained 3.9 million.
Democrats have tried to make Romney's personal wealth and how he's managed it a key issue in the presidential contest. The former Massachusetts governor, who would be among the richest presidents ever elected, is aggressively competing with Obama for the support of middle-class voters.
Romney has refused to release more than one year of personal tax returns, despite calls from Democrats and some Republicans to do so, saying his critics would distort the information and use it against him. He has promised to release a second year of returns.
Eastwood, the star of the "Dirty Harry" movies and the Oscar-winning director of "Unforgiven" and "Million Dollar Baby," endorsed Romney on Friday night during a Sun Valley, Idaho, fundraiser.
"I think the country needs a boost," Eastwood told The Associated Press as he joined other Romney supporters for the private campaign event.
In February, Eastwood told Fox News that he wasn't supporting any politician at that time