* Obama hails jobs numbers after sluggish debate performance
* Romney: "not what a real recovery looks like"
* Obama: "no excuse" to try to score political points
By Mark Felsenthal
FAIRFAX, Va., Oct 5 (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 has "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 a month before Election Day, gave Obama an unexpected shine to the most vulnerable part of his presidential record - his economic stewardship - and offered him a chance to reset his re-election bid.
The 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.
"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.
Romney had made the president's failure to drive the jobless rate below eight 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 Nov. 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 Romney, 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 which 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
After the debate in Denver, Romney gained ground on Obama and is now viewed positively by 51 percent of voters, the first time he has enjoyed a net positive in the U.S. presidential race, a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Thursday found.
But Obama was still narrowly ahead on jobs and employment in the survey, by 40.3 percent to 39.6 percent.
And 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 around 69 percent, up from 66 percent on Thursday. Romney's chances on Intrade were around 31 percent.
Some of Romney's supporters cried foul, questioning the timing of unexpectedly strong economic figures so soon before the election, especially right after Obama had stumbled.
Jack Welch, the former chief executive of General Electric Co., publicly accused Obama's campaign of manipulating the numbers. "Unbelievable jobs number... these Chicago guys will do anything... can't debate so change numbers," he wrote in a message posted on Twitter. Welch is also a columnist for Reuters.
U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said the idea the data was manipulated is "ludicrous."
Speaking to cheering supporters, Obama played up the improving jobs market as fruits of his policies and warned that 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.
And he 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. Got an extreme makeover. But the bottom line is his underlying philosophy is the top down economics that we've seen before."
Romney addressed a large crowd in the coal country of Abingdon, Va., 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 ï¿½ 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."
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 "47 percent" video and his refusal to release more income tax returns.
In a damaging video from a private fund-raising speech, Romney had said in May that 47 percent of voters are dependent on government and unlikely to support him.
Three weeks after the video came to light, Romney completely disavowed the remarks for the fist time, telling Fox News on Thursday that what he said was "just completely wrong."
(Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert; Writing by Matt Spetalnick and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Alistair Bell and Vicki Allen)
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