WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tried to shift the campaign focus back to the economy on Friday, jumping on a weak jobs report that he described as a “kick in the gut” indictment of President Barack Obama’s economic leadership.
After a week of struggling to define a position on healthcare, the jobs debate was a welcome respite for Romney, who trails the Democratic incumbent slightly in national polls.
A Labor Department report for June that portrayed the economy as static, with the unemployment rate unchanged at 8.2 percent and a less-than-forecast 80,000 jobs created, gave each candidate room to argue they have the right mix of policy ideas to rekindle stagnant growth.
“The president’s policies have not gotten America working again and the president is going to have to stand up and take responsibility for it,” Romney said in New Hampshire, where he was vacationing with his family.
Obama is battling to convince voters to stick with him in the November 6 election and trust that he can bring the economy back from the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Surveys often show voters trust Romney more to turn around the economy, but his campaign has come under fire from fellow Republicans for giving out a mixed message on whether Obama’s healthcare law creates a new tax.
Some conservatives also criticized Romney for taking a week off the campaign trail at his lakeside mansion, where he was photographed jet skiing and riding in a boat. However, the Romney campaign and Republican Party organized a voter mobilization effort in several battleground states on Saturday.
Obama called the jobs report “a step in the right direction” while on a campaign bus tour through the industrial states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“It’s still tough out there,” he told a rally in Poland, Ohio. “We learned this morning that our businesses created 84,000 new jobs and that overall means that businesses have created 4.4 million new jobs over the past 28 months.”
The monthly jobs report could set the tone for the next month of campaigning in a presidential race that is too close to call. While the White House argued that “it is important not to read too much into any one monthly report,” political analysts saw a troubling trend.
“These economic numbers don’t work well,” said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “Basically people vote on their pocketbooks and if their pocketbooks are empty, they’re going to look to blame someone and that someone is the president.”
There was at least one advantage for Romney in the Labor report. It allowed him to move away from the uncomfortable issue of healthcare.
He has had difficulty responding to a Supreme Court ruling last week that found Obama’s overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system constitutional.
The Romney camp this week first agreed with Obama that a mandate requiring people to get health insurance or pay a fine was a penalty, before Romney finally got in line with congressional Republicans by declaring it amounted to a tax.
Romney, in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, staged a rare news conference to respond to the jobs report and was quickly asked about the healthcare debate.
“You know, I’ve spoken about healthcare from the day we passed it in Massachusetts, and people said, ‘is this something you’d apply at the federal level?’ and I said no. So the right course for the federal government is to allow states to create their own plans,” Romney said.
Democrats say the Obama plan was modeled on the overhaul Romney developed as governor of Massachusetts. Obama showed he is not eager to let Romney off the hook on the issue.
“The guy I‘m running against tried this in Massachusetts and it’s working just fine, even though now he denies it,” Obama said in Ohio.
Romney has come under criticism for not telling voters specifically how he would trigger growth in the U.S. economy, but rather repeatedly blaming Obama for the weak economy.
“What they want to hear from the challenger is some understanding of why the president’s policies aren’t working and how Mr. Romney’s policies will do better,” the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial on Thursday.
Asked about this criticism, Romney cited a 59-point plan he released months ago as evidence he has a plan to create jobs.
It includes easing regulations to permit increased production of energy, cracking down on China for its trade policies, promoting more trade abroad particularly in Latin America, and cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent and reducing Americans’ individual tax rates.
Romney struck a sober tone in describing the pain of Americans who are either unemployed or underemployed.
“This is a time America to choose whether they want more of the same, whether unemployment above 8 percent month after month after month is satisfactory or not,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be this way. America can do better, and this kick in the gut has got to end.”
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Poland, Ohio