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Debates not last word on presidential race

Jobs reports, deficit numbers for 2012 remain to be seen

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DENVER — The presidential debates may be the biggest news events between now and Election Day, but with two monthly jobs reports, the final deficit tally and several other end-of-the-fiscal-year numbers due, the calendar is littered with other potential political land mines.

The first of those jobs reports is due Friday and could quickly change whatever campaign narrative emerges from the first presidential debate Wednesday in Denver. The second jobs report is due four days before the election and could affect late deciders.

Between now and then, the Congressional Budget Office and the Treasury Department will report on the final deficit for fiscal year 2012, which ended Sunday. That figure is expected to be $1.1 trillion, which would be the fourth straight year of trillion-dollar deficits, though it has fallen from $1.4 trillion in 2009 and is the smallest deficit since Mr. Obama took office.

Also due are final pre-election industry reports on housing and consumer confidence, and the administration also could release end-of-fiscal-year reports on such matters as oil and gas drilling leases and illegal-immigrant deportations.

But with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney struggling to close a gap with President Obama, analysts said, all of those numbers will have to go Mr. Romney's way.

"Romney has to pull an inside straight in a way: solid debate performance where he is perceived as the winner; a bad jobs report; unemployment stays above 8 percent and/or creeps up; and a CBO report which confirms what we already know," said Christopher J. Malone, a political science professor at Pace University.

Many analysts have said the only way Mr. Romney and running mate Paul Ryan can rescue their campaign is to have stellar performances in the debates, which are scheduled one a week for the rest of October.

Most polls show the president leading Mr. Romney nationally and in nearly every battleground state. Those surveys also show voters growing more optimistic about the direction of the country, and Mr. Obama now runs essentially even with Mr. Romney when voters are asked who can best handle the economy.

Still, some Republicans say the political world is too eager to call the fat lady onto the stage.

"Debate or no debate, the race is not over yet," said Jeffrey M. Frederick, former chairman of the Virginia Republican Party. "Thirty days in politics is an eternity."

In addition to the scheduled reports, he said, there are the unknowns – potential unrest in the world, and the risk of stumbles when the candidates are stumping for votes.

The early signs are that this Friday's jobs report, covering hiring in September, will have good news for the president. A survey of businesses released Wednesday by Automatic Data Processing Inc. (ADP) – in partnership with Macroeconomic Advisers LLC – indicated that private-sector employment increased by 162,000 jobs in the month.

Critics, however, said that ADP's figures have not been good predictors for the official numbers, released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on the first Friday of every month. In August, for instance, ADP reported that the nation added 201,000 jobs, while the Labor Department reported 96,000 new jobs.

Aparna Mathur, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, said the September job numbers might show a slight improvement over the BLS' 96,000 job tally in August.

"We have seen some improvement in the housing market and construction," she said. "Also consumer confidence seems to be up and the stock market has reacted positively to the Fed's [quantitative easing.] So there is a good chance that the employment report might be better."

Whatever the case, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the conservative American Action Forum and former policy adviser to John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, said if the numbers from the Labor Department come in as expected, he doesn't see much political peril in them or any of the other reports that are due.

"If we get a seriously negative jobs report that's a hand grenade, but there aren't a lot of numbers out there that are super dramatic," he said.

Mr. Holtz-Eakin said Mr. Romney needs to use the debates to try to get the president to take ownership of the economy – but said Mr. Obama and his operation have done a good job of brushing off political damage from bad monthly jobs reports.

Mr. Malone agreed, saying polls suggest that Mr. Obama is winning the messaging wars on the jobs front.

"I think that his narrative that 'We are not there yet, but we are headed in the right direction,' and 30 straight months of private-sector job growth has beaten the Romney counternarrative, which is 43 months of 8 percent unemployment or higher," he said.

Seth McLaughlin reported from Washington.

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