SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. A new report from the U.S. Labor Department shows a surprising drop in the nation's unemployment rate, adding a new note in the presidential race just a month before the election. Unemployment fell below 8 percent in September for the first time since the month President Obama took office. The president cheered the new numbers as a sign that his economic policies are working, as he campaigned yesterday in Virginia and Ohio. His Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, sees it differently. We'll hear more from the Romney campaign in a moment. First, here's NPR's Scott Horsley.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It was a wet and messy day for a campaign rally in Cleveland yesterday. But despite a steady rain, 9,000 people covered themselves in ponchos or plastic bags and stood outside Cleveland State University to cheer on President Obama.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I know everybody's a little wet. Ladies, I know some of you just went to the hairdresser.
OBAMA: I mean, so that's a big sacrifice.
HORSLEY: Never mind the wet weather - Mr. Obama had some sunny economic news to share.
OBAMA: This morning, we found out that the unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest level since I took office.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
OBAMA: So, more Americans entered the workforce. More people are getting jobs.
HORSLEY: The drop in the unemployment rate to 7.8 percent is a timely boost for Mr. Obama's own job prospects. He needed the lift after his widely panned debate performance against Mitt Romney Wednesday night. The unemployment rate is calculated from a survey of families, and it estimated 873,000 additional people working last month. A separate survey of employers showed much more modest gains of 114,000 jobs. Mr. Obama says even the lower number represents steady progress. He notes that while there's more to be done to help those still looking for work, over the last two and a half years, private employers have added more than five million jobs.
OBAMA: Because of the strength and the resilience of the American people, we've made too much progress to return to the policies that led to this crisis in the first place.
HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, is pushing such policies, including a big tax cut weighted towards the wealthy and scaled back government regulation. During their debate Wednesday night, Governor Romney tried to distance himself from his primary persona as a severe conservative and present himself instead as a pragmatic centrist. During the debate, Mr. Obama did little to challenge that, but he's making up for lost time now.
OBAMA: My opponent, he is doing a lot of a - a little tap dance at the debate the other night, trying to wiggle out of stuff he's been saying for a year. Doing like a - it was like "Dancing with the Stars," or maybe it was "Extreme Makeover."
HORSLEY: Romney claimed, for example, during the debate that his health care plan would guarantee insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, just like Obamacare, which he wants to repeal. His spokesman later had to correct that, saying the guarantee in Romney's plan would apply only to those who'd been steadily insured in the past.
OBAMA: Governor Romney was fact-checked by his own campaign. That's rough.
HORSLEY: Early voting is already underway in Ohio. Mr. Obama, who had a lead in the state before the debate, is urging supporters to get to the polls quickly. After his rally yesterday, Mr. Obama dropped by Cleveland's West Side Market where dozens of vendors sell produce, flowers, and baked goods. His first stop was Michelle's Bakery, where he picked up some zucchini bread and pumpkin cheesecake.
OBAMA: All these things look delicious.
HORSLEY: Butcher Larry Vistein looked on from a neighboring stall as Mr. Obama shook hands with other shoppers and reminded them to vote.
LARRY VISTEIN: It's exciting, it's a lot of fun. We didn't expect it. Came out of the clear blue.
HORSLEY: Before he left the market, the president also picked up two half-pound packages of beef jerky. With his second debate against Romney just ten days away, Mr. Obama wants to balance the cheesecake with some tough red meat. Scott Horsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.