Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets backers at a rally… (Jewel Samad, AFP/Getty…)
ABINGDON, Va. — The job numbers did not quite go Mitt Romney's way Friday morning, but the candidate was unfazed as he climbed up on the back of a flatbed truck to tell the voters of coal country that 7.8% unemployment simply wasn't good enough.
Determined to keep building the momentum for his campaign after Wednesday night's debate, Romney reminded his audience of the economic angst of the last four years and the millions of Americans who are still looking for work, as well as those who have abandoned their job searches altogether.
"We can do better," Romney said, as dust swirled around the gravel machine yard and his fans in Romney-Ryan hard hats squinted in the brilliant sunshine.
"I know right now you're thinking about one job: your job. I'm thinking of your job as well. Person by person," Romney said, punching the air with his finger for emphasis. "I want to make sure your jobs stay here, grow here and provide a bright future for you and for your family."
Still, there were adjustments to his script. Gone was a favorite line about how unemployment has been above 8% each month that President Obama has occupied the Oval Office. Instead, he plucked facts selectively (as his rival has also done on occasion) from Friday morning's Labor Department report — noting, for example, that fewer new jobs were created in September than in August.
He insisted that the unemployment rate has "come down very, very slowly" and that the middle class "is being squeezed with higher and higher costs."
"When I'm president of the United States, that unemployment rate is going to come down," he said, "not because people are giving up and dropping out of the workforce, but because we're creating more jobs."
If Romney felt the jobs report was a political setback, he didn't let on. Since he knocked the president off stride with his debate performance Wednesday night, his campaign seemed to roar back to life after a dismal few weeks. He spent the flight from Colorado to Virginia laughing and reliving the night's highlights with his advisors.
During a rowdy evening rally that began with a tribute from country star Trace Adkins and ended with fireworks, his running mate, Paul D. Ryan, said America had finally gotten "to see the man I know — a leader. A decisive man, an optimistic man, a man with a plan to get people back to work and to protect our freedoms."
Though Romney was roundly seen as winning the debate, it is unclear how much that performance — or the new job numbers, for that matter — will move the polls in key states. Romney is still trying to recover from damage inflicted by the release of a secretly made recording at a fundraiser where he seemed to dismiss 47% of voters as dependent on government. He essentially apologized for those remarks during a Fox appearance Thursday night.
And his campaign still seemed to be zigzagging between attempts to moderate his image — as he did during Wednesday night's debate — and reassuring his base of his conservative values, as he did at Thursday night's National Rifle Assn.-themed rally.
For now, Romney and his supporters seemed elated that they had a chance to change his trajectory. The candidate lingered on the rope line here near the Virginia-Tennessee border — scooping up two children in hard hats who wrapped their arms around his neck, and greeting others with a two-handed grip as they reached across the barricades for him.
"He touched my hand! He touched my hand!" Tennessee voter Tina Cook said, grabbing a reporter's wrist with excitement after a brief encounter with Romney. "He is my hope."
Nearby, Wanda Porter and Donna Quetsch, 55-year-old twins from Abingdon, were still talking about the debate.
"I couldn't even sleep the rest of the night because I was so excited. Romney did so good," Porter said.
Before the debate, Quetsch said, she was concerned that the Obama campaign had succeeded in defining Romney with what she described as "false ads" over the summer. Quetsch, who owns a dry-cleaning business, said she had hoped the debates "were going to open people's eyes" to show Romney as a man of principles and compassion, and Obama as adrift without a teleprompter.
"And it did," her sister said. "It did!"