Employers added just 96,000 jobs in August, not nearly enough to seriously dent unemployment, let alone inspire confidence that the economy is getting better. Even the good news - the unemployment rate dropped from 8.3 percent to 8.1 percent - resulted from many job-hunters just giving up.
"We're going in the wrong direction," Romney declared, a view echoed by a majority of Americans still reeling from a massive recession.
Obama put the emphasis on a trend showing employers have added jobs for 30 months in a row now. He did so with a nod to public frustration.
"We know it's not good enough," Obama said, dealing with the downbeat news mere hours after his confetti-flying Democratic National Convention. "We need to create more jobs, faster."
With 60 frenetic days left until the election, the economic report was not grim enough to alter the political narrative of a consistently tight race. Yet the attention it commanded eroded any hope of a post-convention boost for Obama.
Instead, it underlined his point that economic recovery will not be "quick or easy." No president has won re-election with unemployment over 8 percent since Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Obama has embraced that Great Depression comparison, hoping to show why he and the nation need more time.
Their conventions behind them and their debates just ahead, Obama and Romney sprinted into the next phase of campaign, targeting eight or so toss-up states. The two men headed the same way Friday, appearing in Iowa and New Hampshire, two states with small but potentially decisive electoral prizes.
The economy has added just 139,000 jobs a month this year, a slower pace than last year. It takes roughly 200,000 jobs a month to shrink unemployment. In perspective, the economy was bleeding hundreds of thousands of jobs when Obama took office, but that does not comfort the jobless today.
The new results only sharpened the competing and defining storylines of the election. Romney says the poor pace of job growth demands that Obama be thrown out of office, while the incumbent implores voters to compare the candidates' economic visions and see why only his would help the middle class.
If the jobs numbers did hang over Obama, he did not show it, smiling and waving during rallies in Portsmouth, N.H., and Iowa City, Iowa. In both cities he returned to the themes of his convention speech, poking fun again at Romney while shrinking his competitor's economic theory to one idea.
"Tax cuts. Tax cuts. Cut some more regulations. Oh, and more tax cuts," Obama told the thousands who packed the grounds at Portsmouth's Strawbery Banke Museum. "Tax cuts when times are good. Tax cuts when times are bad. Tax cuts to help you lose a few extra pounds. Tax cuts to help you improve your love life. It'll cure anything."
Romney was biting as well.
On repeated occasions Friday, he challenged Obama's competency, lumping together the jobs report and Obama's prime-time convention address.
"There was nothing in the speech that gives confidence that the president knows what he's doing when it comes to jobs," Romney told Fox News.
It was a rejoinder to Thursday night, when Obama stood before a cheering crowd and essentially put the candidates on different levels.
"The times have changed, and so have I," Obama said. "I'm no longer just a candidate. I'm the president."
Trying to extend the buzz of his convention, Obama went back on the trail with Vice President Joe Biden and their wives as well. One of the longest days of his campaign would take him from North Carolina to New Hampshire to Iowa and ultimately Florida, where he begins a bus tour on Saturday.
The monthly jobs snapshot came out even before organizers in Charlotte had finished clearing away the convention.
"If last night was the party," Romney said in a statement, "this morning is the hangover."
Romney's campaign also unveiled a battery of TV ads in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia. The themes of the ads are tailored to the economic concerns within those states, from growing debt to potential defense cuts to collapsing home values.
The gloomy reaction to job growth came in part because it fell even below the expectations that economists had for August. On top of that, hourly pay fell, the job totals for July and June were reduced, and the number of people in the work force dropped to its lowest level in 31 years.
"This is not even close to what a recovery looks like," Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan told CNBC.
Obama aides said they came out of their convention with momentum and small but consistent leads in the decisive states. With each passing week of little movement in the polls, the campaign attention is turning to what's left: voter mobilization drives and October's three presidential debates.
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn in Portsmouth, N.H., Thomas Beaumont in Orange City, Iowa, and Nancy Benac and Christopher S. Rugaber in Washington contributed to this report.