- Associated Press - Friday, October 19, 2012

CLEVELAND — Unemployment rates fell last month in nearly all of the battleground states that will determine the presidential winner, giving President Barack Obama fresh fodder to argue that voters should stick with him in an election focused squarely on the economy.

The declines, however, were modest. It’s unknown whether they will do much to sway undecided voters who are considering whether to back Republican Mitt Romney or give the Democratic president four more years.

The statewide data released by the Labor Department on Friday provide one of the last comprehensive looks at the health of the U.S. economy ahead of Election Day, now a little more than two weeks away. Voters will get one more update on the national unemployment rate just days before the election. But the state reports matter greatly to the Obama and Romney campaigns, which believe the public’s impressions of the economy are shaped mostly by local conditions rather than national ones.

In Ohio, perhaps the most crucial battleground state for both Obama and Romney, the unemployment rate ticked down last month to 7 percent from 7.2 percent, below the national average of 7.8 percent.

“I knew a lot of people who were laid off and now they’re working,” said firefighter Matt Sparling, an Obama supporter from Parma Heights, Ohio. “So something good is happening here.”

Obama’s team is banking on the president getting credit for improvements in Ohio’s economy, particularly for the bailout of the auto industry, which has deep roots in the Midwestern swing state. But Romney has opportunities to run on the economy in Ohio, too. The state actually lost nearly 13,000 jobs in September and the drop in the unemployment rate was probably due in part to people dropping out of the job market.

Obama’s campaign released a new ad in Ohio on Friday, touting the president’s rescue of General Motors and Chrysler. Without the auto bailout, one man in the ad says, “Ohio would have collapsed.” Another man says, “Mitt Romney would have just let us go under — just let them go bankrupt.” The ad’s tagline shows the map of Ohio with the words: “Mitt Romney. Not one of us.”

The president didn’t mention the state jobless numbers during a campaign stop Friday in Virginia, one of two battleground states where the rate didn’t drop. It held steady at the relatively low level of 5.9 percent.

Spirited on other topics, Obama quipped in a raucous rally at George Mason University that a case of “Romnesia” was preventing his opponent from remembering his own stances on health care, energy and a slate of policies.

“He’s forgetting what his own positions are — and he’s betting that you will, too,” Obama said. “We’ve got to name this condition that he’s going through. I think it’s called Romnesia.”

Romney was headlining a rally in Florida Friday evening after spending much of the day in New York meeting with advisers.

The candidates were stepping off the campaign trail this weekend for debate preparations ahead of Monday’s third and final face-off in Boca Raton, Fla. Romney was staying in South Florida to practice, while Obama and top aides headed to Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, to prepare for the foreign policy-focused debate.

International issues competed with the economy for voters’ attention Friday, as fresh questions arose over what the White House knew when about the deadly attack on Americans in Libya.

Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan accused Obama of stonewalling, telling Milwaukee radio station WTMJ that the president was refusing to answer even basic questions.

“His response has been inconsistent, it’s been misleading,” Ryan said.

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