FAIRFAX, Virginia (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Friday hailed a drop in the U.S. jobless rate to the lowest level since he took office, saying the country had "come too far to turn back now," as he sought to recover from a lackluster debate performance against Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
A decline in unemployment to 7.8 percent in September, announced just more than four weeks before Election Day, gave an unexpected shine to the most vulnerable part of Obama's record - his economic stewardship - and offered him a chance to reset his re-election bid. The rate dropped from 8.1 percent in August.
The much-needed dose of positive news for the Democratic president came two days after he was widely judged the loser in his first presidential debate against Romney, who breathed new life into his own campaign.
Reinforcing a sense of momentum for Romney coming out of the first of three face-offs on the national stage, a new Reuters/Ipsos poll of likely voters showed Obama's lead narrowing to just 2 percentage points - 46 percent to his rival's 44 percent. Obama had a 6-point advantage in Wednesday's poll.
With Obama's supporters suddenly more nervous about his re-election prospects, he sought to regain the initiative by focusing on jobs numbers, which he welcomed as a source of "some encouragement" about his economic approach.
"Today, I believe that as a nation we are moving forward again," Obama told an enthusiastic crowd at a campaign rally at George Mason University in Virginia. "More Americans entered the workforce, more people are getting jobs."
"It's a reminder that this country has come too far to turn back now," he said.
He also seized the opportunity - both in Virginia and later at a campaign event in Ohio, another critical swing state - to accuse Romney of using the debate to reshape himself with an "extreme makeover" on everything from taxes to government regulations.
Romney had made the president's failure to drive the jobless rate below 8 percent a key plank in his campaign, so the drop to the lowest level since January 2009 could deprive him of some ammunition in the final sprint toward the November 6 election.
Reacting to the data, Romney said the economy remained weak and noted that the unemployment rate would be closer to 11 percent if it included those who had given up looking for work.
"This is not what a real recovery looks like," he said in a statement.
Taking a veiled swipe at the former Massachusetts governor, Obama said, "Today's news is certainly not an excuse to try to talk down the economy to score a few political points."
While pollsters disagree over how much of an effect economic data have on voting intentions, a good jobs number can only be positive for the incumbent, especially in the aftermath of Wednesday's debate that put Obama on the defensive.
"Good economic news is good political news. President Obama needed that after the debate and it gives him numerical evidence that his policies are working," said Julian Zelizer of Princeton University.
Crucially, the report showed the U.S. workforce was expanding. In some recent months, the unemployment rate had ticked downward largely because many Americans had given up on looking for work. Data showed that employers added 114,000 jobs in September.
UPTICK IN POLLS FOR ROMNEY
In the Reuters/Ipsos poll, more than nine out of 10 registered voters - 91 percent - said they had seen, heard or read something about the debate, and 54 percent said they thought Romney had done a better job.
Thirty percent said it made them feel more positive toward Romney. That was more than double the 14 percent who felt better about Obama after watching the two candidates go head-to-head.
The online prediction market Intrade showed the jobs report helped give Obama a better shot at the White House. It put his chances at re-election at about 69 percent, up from 66 percent on Thursday. Romney's chances on Intrade were about 31 percent.
It remained to be seen whether Obama's weak performance in Denver would become a long-term problem for the president. He has two more chances to redeem himself in debates - a second is set for October 16, and the third is on October 22.
Speaking to cheering supporters, Obama played up the improving jobs market as fruits of his policies and warned a Republican return to the White House could turn that around.
"We are not going to let this country fall backward, not now. We've got too much at stake," he said.
He also kept up an attack on Romney as a flip-flopper who was less than truthful at the debate.
"My opponent has been trying to do a two-step, and reposition," Obama said. "But the bottom line is his underlying philosophy is the top-down economics that we've seen before."
In a damaging video from a private fundraising speech, Romney said in May that 47 percent of voters were dependent on government and unlikely to support him.
Three weeks after the video came to light, Romney completely disavowed the remarks for the first time, telling Fox News on Thursday that what he said was "just completely wrong."
Often criticized for being wooden, Romney's aggressive debate performance on Wednesday gave his campaign a burst of energy after weeks of setbacks.
Looking at times tired and displeased, Obama did not seize opportunities to attack the Republican on his business record at Bain Capital, the Romney video and his rival's refusal to release more income tax returns.
Romney addressed a large crowd in the coal country of Abingdon, Virginia, and did not respond to the Labor Department report until near the end of his remarks.
"There were fewer new jobs created this month than last month and the unemployment rate has you know this year has come down very, very slowly, but it has come down nonetheless," he said.
"The reason it has come down this year is primarily due to the fact that more and more people have just stopped looking for work," he said. "When I'm president of the United States ... the unemployment rate is going to come down, not because people are giving up and dropping out of the workforce, but because we're creating more jobs."