* 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 onFriday hailed a drop in the U.S. jobless rate to the lowestlevel since he took office, saying the country has "come too farto turn back now," as he sought to recover from a lacklusterdebate 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 unexpectedshine to the most vulnerable part of his presidential record -his economic stewardship - and offered him a chance to reset hisre-election bid.
The positive news for the Democratic president came two daysafter he was widely judged the loser in his first presidentialdebate against Romney, who breathed new life into his owncampaign.
"Today I believe that as a nation we are moving forwardagain," Obama told an enthusiastic crowd at a campaign rally atGeorge Mason University in Virginia. "More Americans entered theworkforce, more people are getting jobs."
"It's a reminder that this country has come too far to turnback now," he said.
Romney had made the president's failure to drive the joblessrate below eight percent a key plank in his campaign, so thedrop to the lowest level since January 2009 could deprive him ofsome ammunition in the final sprint toward the Nov. 6 election.
Reacting to the data, Romney said the economy remained weakand noted that the unemployment rate would be closer to 11percent if it included those who had given up looking for work."This is not what a real recovery looks like," he said in astatement.
Taking a veiled swipe at Romney, Obama said: "Today's newsis certainly not an excuse to try to talk down the economy toscore a few political points."
While pollsters disagree over how much of an effect economicdata have on voting intentions, a good jobs number can only bepositive for the incumbent, especially in the aftermath ofWednesday's debate which put Obama on the defensive.
"Good economic news is good political news. President Obamaneeded that after the debate and it gives him numerical evidencethat his policies are working," said Julian Zelizer of PrincetonUniversity.
Crucially, the report showed the U.S. workforce wasexpanding. In some recent months, the unemployment rate hadticked downward largely because many Americans had given up onlooking for work. Data showed that employers added 114,000 jobsin September.
UPTICK IN POLLS FOR ROMNEY
After the debate in Denver, Romney gained ground on Obamaand is now viewed positively by 51 percent of voters, the firsttime he has enjoyed a net positive in the U.S. presidentialrace, a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Thursday found.
But Obama was still narrowly ahead on jobs and employmentin the survey, by 40.3 percent to 39.6 percent.
And the online prediction market Intrade showed the jobsreport helped give Obama a better shot at the White House. Itput his chances at re-election at around 69 percent, up from 66percent on Thursday. Romney's chances on Intrade were around 31percent.
Some of Romney's supporters cried foul, questioning thetiming of unexpectedly strong economic figures so soon beforethe election, especially right after Obama had stumbled.
Jack Welch, the former chief executive of General ElectricCo., publicly accused Obama's campaign of manipulating thenumbers. "Unbelievable jobs number... these Chicago guys will doanything... can't debate so change numbers," he wrote in amessage posted on Twitter. Welch is also a columnist forReuters.
U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said the idea the data wasmanipulated is "ludicrous."
Speaking to cheering supporters, Obama played up theimproving jobs market as fruits of his policies and warned thata Republican return to the White House could turn that around.
"We are not going to let this country fall backward, notnow. We've got too much at stake," he said.
And he kept up an attack on Romney as a flip-flopper who wasless than truthful at the debate.
"My opponent has been trying to do a two-step, andreposition. Got an extreme makeover. But the bottom line is hisunderlying philosophy is the top down economics that we've seenbefore."
Romney addressed a large crowd in the coal country ofAbingdon, Va., and did not respond to the Labor Departmentreport until near the end of his remarks.
"There were fewer new jobs created this month than lastmonth and the unemployment rate has you know this year has comedown very, very slowly, but it has come down nonetheless," hesaid.
"The reason it has come down this year is primarily due tothe fact that more and more people have just stopped looking forwork," he said. "When I'm president of the United States ï¿½ theunemployment rate is going to come down, not because people aregiving up and dropping out of the workforce, but because we'recreating more jobs."
Often criticized for being wooden, Romney's aggressivedebate performance on Wednesday gave his campaign a burst ofenergy after weeks of setbacks.
Looking at times tired and displeased, Obama did not seizeopportunities to attack the Republican on his business record atBain Capital, the "47 percent" video and his refusal to releasemore income tax returns.
In a damaging video from a private fund-raising speech,Romney had said in May that 47 percent of voters are dependenton government and unlikely to support him.
Three weeks after the video came to light, Romney completelydisavowed the remarks for the fist time, telling Fox News onThursday that what he said was "just completely wrong."
(Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert; Writing by MattSpetalnick and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Alistair Bell andVicki Allen)
((Matt.Spetalnick@thomsonreuters.com)(+1 202 898 8300)(ReutersMessaging: firstname.lastname@example.org@reuters.net))
((For complete coverage of the U.S. presidential campaign click on
))Keywords: USA CAMPAIGN/