WASHINGTON -- Unemployment rates fell or held steady last month in nine key swing states at the center of this year's presidential election.
Rates dropped in Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada and North Carolina. They were unchanged in New Hampshire and Virginia.
The declines could help President Barack Obama at a critical time. With just 18 days until Election Day, polls show GOP challenger Mitt Romney gaining momentum with voters in key states.
Overall, the Labor Department said Friday that rates fell in 41 states last month, rose in six and were unchanged in three.
Two weeks ago, the government said the national unemployment rate dropped in September to 7.8 percent. It's the lowest level since Obama's first month in office. The government will report Nov. 2 on October employment, just four days before the election.
Friday's state unemployment report is the last before the election.
Many key states are still facing high unemployment. The rate was 11.8 percent in Nevada and 9.6 percent in North Carolina.
Still, voters are often more influenced by the trend in unemployment than the rates themselves, according to political analysts. Nevada will likely test that theory. It has the nation's highest unemployment rate. But it has also experienced the steepest decline in the past 12 months. The unemployment rate there was 13.6 percent a year ago.
Six of the nine swing states gained jobs last month: Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Virginia, which is considered one of the most crucial states in play because of its 13 electoral votes, added 11,500 jobs last month. That was the most of any swing state. The unemployment rate remained 5.9 percent, far below the national average.
Three states lost jobs: Ohio, Iowa and New Hampshire.
The number of jobs added or lost is determined by survey of businesses. The unemployment rate is derived from a survey of households. The two can sometimes produce divergent results.
Ohio shed 12,800 jobs last month, the second most in the nation. But its unemployment rate declined.
That suggests that at least some of the drop in Ohio's unemployment rate stemmed from people giving up on their job searches and dropping out of the work force. People are only counted as unemployed when they are actively looking for work.
The national unemployment rate fell last month because of a huge jump in the number of people who said they had jobs. Still, most of those jobs were part time and many people working part time are still looking for full-time work.