WASHINGTON -- Key dates loom on the political calendars for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney: the upcoming conventions; debates -- three presidential, one vice presidential -- but none perhaps as crucial as Nov. 2 may be. That's when the Labor Department releases the last jobs report before Election Day.
On Friday, the July numbers brought mixed news for the economy and the battle for the White House between Obama and Romney -- neither a decisive blow nor a triumphal turnaround: 163,000 jobs were created last month, but not enough to knock down the jobless rate, which notched up to 8.3 percent from 8.2 percent the month before.
According to the latest figures, 12.8 million people in the U.S. were jobless in July with another statistic very telling: 10.8 million are considered "underemployed."
People are still dropping out of the work force, so discouraged they no longer hunt for work. The drop-out rate -- 8.8 percent in July -- "is among the lowest readings since early 2009," said Jan Eberly, Treasury Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy at a Friday briefing. "It's fallen about .8 percentage points since last August, suggesting that fewer individuals are dropping out of the labor force because they're discouraged."
The market responded well to the July numbers -- the Dow Jones jumped 217 points -- but the slow growth means that Obama continues to be on the defensive when it comes to his stewardship of the economy.
With the Hispanic vote important, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis looked at the numbers through that lens. Said Solis in a statement, "The unemployment rate remained essentially unchanged at 8.3 percent, while the share of long-term unemployed fell to its lowest level since 2009. The Latino unemployment rate dropped nearly a percentage point last month to 10.3 percent."
The economy is the central issue in the campaign. The flak Romney caught last week over stumbles he made in his trip to England, Israel and Poland seems already fading as the narrative -- no surprise -- switched back Friday to jobs and the economy.
Romney, stumping in Nevada, said the July report was "another hammer blow to the struggling middle class families of America. Because the president has not had policies that put American families back to work. I do."
Over at the White House, Obama -- who turns 51 on Saturday -- said, "let's acknowledge, we've still got too many folks out there who are looking for work. We've got more work to do on their behalf, not only to reclaim all the jobs that were lost during the recession, but also to reclaim the kind of financial security that too many Americans have felt was slipping away from them for too long."
Crossroads GPS -- one of the pro-Romney SuperPACs -- one Karl Rove advises -- went up with a hard-hitting ad on Tuesday, running in nine battleground states. The spot uses a clip from the July 17 CBS News where anchor Scott Pelley said, "This is the worst economic recovery America has ever had" followed by a narrator saying, "41 straight months of unemployment over 8 percent" because of Obama's "failed stimulus policy."
July made it the 42nd month unemployment was above eight percent.
The eight percent jobless figure is a benchmark the Obama economic team set in 2009 -- when the administration was urging Congress to pass Obama's stimulus bill.
Obama is stuck with that eight percent projection.
The Obama administration looked at another statistic -- private-sector job growth for the last 29 months.
The Obama team in the past days has been focusing on taxes, hoping to widen the economic discussion from just jobs. The president again called on Congress to extend Bush-era tax cuts before the expire Dec. 31 -- but only for families making less than $250,000.
And the Obama team has been ramping up pressure on Romney to disclose more than one year of tax returns -- a call that Romney's campaign has been shrugging off.
On Thursday, the Obama campaign released a new ad to run in eight battleground states -- that among other points -- hits Romney for paying a tax rate of 14 percent on $20 million of income.
Romney and Obama gamed out Friday's jobs report -- sparing because the numbers were not conclusive.
Maybe in a few months they will be.
There could be a Nov. 2 surprise.