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Romney Skirts Drop In Unemployment


And Mitt Romney a little more than a day to savor his presidential debate win before the September unemployment figures forced him to recalibrate. High unemployment has been Mitt Romney's number one argument for why voters should replace President Obama. Now, the jobless rate is still high, but it is below the important psychological threshold of 8 percent. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on how the Republican presidential nominee reacted to the news.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: In southern Virginia's coal country, Romney said the new 7.8 percent jobless rate doesn't tell the whole story.

MITT ROMNEY: There were fewer new jobs created this month than last month. And the unemployment rate, as you noted this year has come down very, very slowly but it's come down nonetheless.

SHAPIRO: The number is lower this month, because yesterday the Bureau of Labor Statistics said it underestimated August job creation. Romney claimed the only reason unemployment is dropping is that people have stopped looking for jobs.

ROMNEY: And if you just drop out of the workforce, if you just give up and say, look, I can't go back to work, I'm just going to stay home - if you just drop off altogether, why, you're no longer part of the unemployment statistics, so it looks like unemployment's getting better.

SHAPIRO: Some of the decline in unemployment over the last year is due to people leaving the workforce. But last month's drop was caused by a big increase in jobs. Many of those jobs are part-time. And that trend worries Roscoe Lester. He's a retired maintenance worker from across the border in Tennessee. His friends are getting low-paying jobs with no benefits. And he says it's no way to live.

ROSCOE LESTER: Just 'cause you're working but if you're making half of what you did yesterday, you're still going under, it's just a slower process.

SHAPIRO: Like many voters at this rally, Lester thinks Democratic politicians are manipulating unemployment figures to help President Obama win re-election.

LESTER: The normal person out on the street, like myself or anybody, we have no idea how they play with them numbers. All you have to do is see how they play with the issues and how they spin them, and to say do I think it's a credible number? No.

SHAPIRO: That conspiracy theory is false. But it picked up a lot of steam yesterday. Nancy Lemieux is another Tennessee voter with similar doubts.

NANCY LEMIEUX: I don't believe the numbers, I'm sorry.

SHAPIRO: And so are there any official statistics at all that you would trust to be accurate?

LEMIEUX: Not until after the election.

SHAPIRO: From Virginia, Romney flew to Florida. That state's Republican governor, Rick Scott, tweeted yesterday that Tampa and Miami saw the biggest unemployment drop in the country. Romney touched down at the edge of Tampa Bay for a waterfront rally in St. Petersburg.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) And the rain goes on, I seen sunshine...

SHAPIRO: On a hot swampy evening, people crowded around my microphone to explain why the unemployment numbers could not possibly be accurate. John Minetti is a retired teacher and chef.

JOHN MINETTI: They say there's no way you can fix a baseball game, too, but they did.

SHAPIRO: Wouldn't President Obama have gone for a better number than 7.8 if he could've?

MINETTI: Nah. You don't want to get too greedy.

SHAPIRO: Susan Wright is a third generation Floridian. She doesn't question the unemployment numbers' legitimacy, but she says it sure doesn't feel like the economy's on the mend.

SUSAN WRIGHT: Well, you know, we always had ups and downs and ups and downs. We've just never had a down for so long. And I personally feel like it's going to take somebody new and different to get us up again.

SHAPIRO: As the sun set over the water, Romney took the stage with his wife Ann. He began by talking about the debate and some of the issues most important to Florida - gas prices, health care, and immigration.

ROMNEY: I asked him again why it was when he said that in his first year his highest priority would be to put in place an immigration plan that would solve our immigration problems, why instead he never put in filed a piece of legislation for immigration reform.

SHAPIRO: Actually, immigration did not come up once in the debate. In this Florida speech Romney did not mention the monthly jobs report at all. But he said workers are having a tough time.

ROMNEY: You realize if the number of people in America, the participation of our adults in the workforce were the same as at the time he got elected, why, our unemployment rate would be about 11 percent.

SHAPIRO: That would be true if everyone leaving the workforce dropped out because they were frustrated with their job search. But labor economists point out that many baby boomers are retiring, which also takes many people out of the workforce. Today is a quieter day on the campaign trail for Romney. He has no public events until this evening, when he'll rally supporters in Orlando. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, St. Petersburg, Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.