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Payroll figures give Mitt Romney last chance to make his pitch

But mixed messages from vital figures also hand Barack Obama a way to defend his record

An election race that hinges on the state of America's economy was dominated by the release of new employment figures yesterday which allowed both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to lay a final claim to the eagerly contested mantle of job-creator-in-chief.

The monthly report from the US Labor Department revealed that 171,000 new names were added to payrolls by employers in October. That was significantly more than the 125,000 analysts had expected, and allows Mr Obama to take the credit for 32 straight months of slow but steady private-sector job growth.

Yet it also showed the unemployment rate tick up a tenth of a point, to 7.9 per cent. That rise was due to previously idle workers surging back in to the employment market, so was in theory positive economic news. But it also offered Mr Romney a valuable avenue for attack.

"Today's increase in the unemployment rate is a sad reminder that the economy is at a virtual standstill," Mr Romney said immediately after the report's release. "The jobless rate is higher than it was when President Obama took office... We can do better."

At a campaign stop in Wisconsin, the Republican candidate warmed to that theme, telling supporters that the President's policies were "crushing" the middle class. Citing what he called the "failed promises" of Mr Obama's last campaign, he argued that America "can't afford four more years" on its current track.

"[Obama] said that he was going to have the unemployment rate down to 5.2 per cent by now. Today, we learned that it's actually 7.9 per cent," said Mr Romney, who was last night due to speak on the outskirts of Cincinnati, in the crucial swing-state of Ohio. "That's nine million jobs short of what we were promised."

The President's riposte also came in Ohio, at a morning rally attended by roughly 2,800 supporters in the blue-collar city of Hillard. He currently carries a small but solid lead in opinion polls covering the state, whose 18 electoral college votes represent the foundation of the "firewall" protecting his chances of re-election.

"We've created 5.4 million new jobs, and this morning we learned companies hired more workers in October than at any time in the last eight months," he said. "The American auto industry is back on top. Home values and housing construction is on the rise. We're less dependent on foreign oil than at any time in the past 20 years."

Making what is expected to form the backbone of his pitch, Mr Obama added: "We've made real progress, but we're here today because we know we have more work to do. As long as a single American wants a job can't find one, as long as families are working hard but falling behind, as long as there is a child languishing in poverty, our fight goes on. We have more work to do."

Deeper in yesterday's announcement were further positive signs for Mr Obama. September's new job figures – which were so good when initially released that prominent Republicans claimed they had been fabricated – were revised further upwards.

Consumer confidence is currently at its highest level for five years, according to a monthly survey released on Thursday. Home values and construction are also on the rise, albeit slowly. Mr Obama's campaign says the data reflect a nation on the right path.

Yet for all the bright signs, Mr Obama will still go into Tuesday's election with a higher unemployment rate than any sitting US President since Franklin D Roosevelt in the Depression-era 1930s. That is a fact that Republicans argue bears witness to a failed agenda.

The economy in numbers

171,000 Number of jobs added to US economy in October

7.9% Unemployment rate in October – 0.1% higher than September, despite number of extra jobs added

34.4 Hours in the average American's working week in October

$23.58 Average hourly wage in October (equal to £14.69), down one cent from September

11.8% Unemployment rate in Nevada in September – the highest in the US