Desperate to recover from his limp debate performance, President Barack Obama received a major boost yesterday with a decline in the US unemployment rate to below 8 per cent, as a re-energised Mitt Romney stepped up his efforts to recapture the vital swing state of Virginia.
The actual number of new jobs created in September was an uninspiring 114,000, roughly in line with expectations. But with the campaign entering its final month and the economy the central issue, Mr Obama will be able to point to the drop in the rate to 7.8 per cent – the lowest since early 2009 – as proof that things are slowly but surely improving.
The President needs all the help he can get. Although he still holds a slight lead in the national polls and in most battleground states, including Virginia, Mr Romney's strong debate showing has lifted Republican spirits.
"I was surprised," said Doug Stader, 55, who was among the 10,000-plus who attended a packed and boisterous Romney rally here in central Virginia. "He kind of blew Obama away."
Also typical was the comment of another attendee who failed even to make it inside an event that backed up traffic on nearby interstate highways for miles. "I was really pleased," she said. "I knew he could do it, but it was about time."
In his speech, the Republican candidate hammered away at the economy, accusing Mr Obama of practising "trickle-down government" with more public spending and higher taxes.
"He talks about stimulus and more government workers," Mr Romney said. "But that will kill jobs." The only reason the unemployment rate was falling, he argued, was because people despairing of ever finding a job had stopped looking for one.
Time and again Mr Romney referred to Wednesday's debate in Denver, Colorado, one widely judged the best moment of his campaign, although its impact on the polls is yet to be seen. He said he had peppered Mr Obama with questions "about the 23 million unemployed and the problems of the middle class. I asked him those questions and you heard his answers." The crowd roared, a sea of American flags and chants of "USA, USA".
Virginia is a key piece in the electoral jigsaw Mr Romney must assemble if he is to win the White House on 6 November. The state went Democrat in 2008 for the first time since voting for Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 landslide. If the election were held today, Mr Obama would carry Virginia again.
Without it, however, Mr Romney's chances of victory are slim. Yesterday he was holding another rally in the state. In fact, his problem is not in places like Fishersville – solid Republican country where Confederate flags are still flutter in the odd window, where gun stores abound and where one of the speakers at the rally was Wayne LaPierre, head of the powerful gun lobby group, the National Rifle Association. Unsurprisingly, the NRA has endorsed Mr Romney and Mr LaPierre warned on Thursday evening that if re-elected, Mr Obama might be in a position to appoint a new Supreme Court Justice – "and that would mean kissing our right to own a firearm goodbye".
To win Virginia, however, the Republican must somehow cut into the Mr Obama's lead in the ever-growing, increasingly Democrat suburban belt around Washington DC and reduce his opponent's huge advantage among women and minority voters.
Meanwhile, Mr Romney is trying to correct past gaffes, apologising for his remark – which was secretly taped at a closed Florida fundraiser in the spring – that 47 per of Americans considered themselves "victims" and would never vote for him. "I said something that's just completely wrong," he told the Fox News cable channel. "I absolutely believe, however, that my life has shown that I care about the 100 per cent. When I become president, it will be about helping the 100 per cent."
Astonishingly, Mr Obama never mentioned the gaffe, perhaps the most damaging of the many committed by the Republican candidate, during Wednesday's debate. After Mr Romney's comprehensive retraction, the President may find it harder to do so in future.