WASHINGTON -- With President Barack Obama knocked off stride and the election looming, the government is issuing new unemployment data likely to underscore the slow economic recovery and ensure that jobs remain the top issue of the presidential campaign.
Friday's release of numbers reflecting September hiring and joblessness comes less than 36 hours after the economy dominated the first presidential debate of the general election, reinvigorating Republican challenger Mitt Romney and leaving Obama on the defensive.
Economists predict employers added 111,000 jobs last month, up from the 96,000 jobs added in August. The jobless rate is expected to inch up from 8.1 percent. After Friday's numbers there is only one more unemployment report left before the Nov. 6 election.
Jobs have been a central theme in this election. The words "job" and "jobs" were among the most frequently mentioned in Wednesday's debate in Denver, uttered at a rate of more than once every two minutes in a 90-minute showdown.
A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found that the vast majority of voters already have settled on a candidate, but 17 percent of likely voters are considered persuadable _ either because they're undecided or showing soft support for Obama or Romney. Roughly 56 percent of persuadables approve of the way Obama is handling his job as president, but fewer, 47 percent, approve of his handling of the economy.
While employers are hiring in this economy, the pace has been far too slow to reduce unemployment in recent months. Still, while the slow recovery has been a drag on Obama's re-election hopes, the monthly reminders of joblessness have not markedly altered the trajectory of the presidential campaign.
Last month's weak hiring numbers for instance came out just a day after Obama delivered his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Yet they didn't appear to interfere with Obama's post-convention bounce in public opinion polls or with perceptions that he would be as good as Romney at creating jobs.
The unemployment rate has been fluctuating between 8.1 percent and 8.3 percent since January after being stuck at between 8.9 percent and 9.1 percent for 10 months in 2011.
"I don't think these jobs numbers have really sent a fundamentally different signal about the economy than what voters already know," said John Sides, a George Washington University political scientist who has examined the relationship of economic data and presidential politics. "If it was abysmal enough to drive news coverage in a significantly different way, that combined with the debate performance last night might sort of help Romney close the gap even further."
But, he added, "these numbers, however much they represent real suffering among Americans, are not quite flashy enough to suggest either good news or really bad news."
On average, the economy has added just 87,400 jobs a month since April. That's down from an average of 226,000 jobs a month in the January-March quarter. In an indicator that typically is higher than the government's figures, payroll processor ADP said Wednesday that private employers added 162,000 jobs last month, exceeding economists' estimates.
Romney will certainly use Friday's report to cast Obama as ineffective in job creation. Speaking in Denver on Thursday morning, Romney said Obama would raise taxes on small businesses "which will kill jobs."
"I instead want to keep taxes down on small business so we can create jobs," Romney added. "This is about good jobs for the American people."
At his own Denver rally Thursday, Obama countered that Romney offered the same economic remedies of the past. "We cannot afford to double down on the same top-down economic policies that got us into this mess. That is not a plan to create jobs."
No president has been re-elected with unemployment above 8 percent since the Great Depression. But analysts and Obama advisers maintain that the rate is less important than the trajectory, and Obama aides are quick to note that the past recession drove unemployment up to 10 percent in 2009 before beginning to drop.
"I think that there's a broad recognition of where we are," Obama campaign senior political adviser David Axelrod said. "So unless they're startlingly different, I don't think that this particular jobs report is going to be determinative. That's been the pattern. People understand we're in a long-term project here and we have to keep moving forward."
But the jobless numbers, the most attention-grabbing economic data point, also doesn't exist in a vacuum. Other indicators, taken together, present a mixed economic recovery that is trending positive.
Consumer confidence grew last month. Average rates on fixed mortgages fell to record lows for the second straight week and mortgage applications climbed 16.6 percent last week, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Still, underscoring the mixed picture, the Commerce Department said Thursday that factory orders fell 5.2 percent in August, the biggest drop in more than three years.
Last week, the Obama administration got some good news when the Labor Department reported that the economy added 386,000 more jobs than had previously been estimated in the 12 months ended in March. The revision officially put job creation under Obama's presidency in the black, with more jobs in the U.S. now than when he took office.