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“To the extent there’s a mixed message about some of the numbers, it gives Romney something to hold onto,” said Joel Johnson, a Democrat who has worked in Congress and the Bill Clinton White House. Obama’s allies must keep reminding voters that the 2008 economic collapse happened on President George W. Bush’s watch and now, “we’re clawing our way out,” Johnson said.

Romney must highlight the economy’s ongoing weaknesses, “but you don’t want to root against progress,” he said.

Republicans say employment isn’t the only important economic factor in the presidential race. High gasoline prices and concerns about federal spending and deficits also will work against Obama, they say.

But Republicans know they cannot count on economic trends to move their way. Romney has broadened his criticisms of Obama in recent days, saying voters should oust the president because of things he has done and unknown things he might do.

Romney repeatedly cites Obama’s supposedly private comments to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, in which Obama said he would have “more flexibility” to deal with missile defense after the election.

“He does not want to share his real plans before the election, either with the public or with the press,” Romney told newspaper editors and publishers Wednesday. “By flexibility, he means that ‘what the American public doesn’t know won’t hurt him.’”

“On what other issues will he state his true position only after the election is over?” Romney said.

Obama, meanwhile, has widened his criticisms of Romney, a tactic he may have to accelerate if employment slumps in coming months. The president said at The Associated Press annual meeting in Washington that Romney has embraced “thinly veiled social Darwinism” by backing a House GOP budget that would cut taxes for Americans, including the wealthiest, and reduce spending on many programs.

Obama’s Chicago-based campaign paid less attention Friday to the jobs report than to a Washington Post story about Romney’s hard-to-find financial assets and an equal-pay dispute in Wisconsin.

With no one sure what the next monthly jobs report might find, the campaigns are preparing for a tough general election in which the economy will be paramount and voters’ moods unpredictable.