WEST CHESTER, Ohio — President Obama and Mitt Romney, their race for the presidency down to a matter of critical hours, blitzed this all-important swing state on Friday, sprinkling their closing pitches to voters with shots at their rivals.
Obama, in three appearances in Ohio, scolded his Republican rival, saying he is misleading voters about one of the most important issues in northern Ohio, the auto industry bailout, and accusing him of attempting to “scare hard-working Americans to scare up votes.”
Romney turned to the conservative southwest corner of Ohio, pillorying the incumbent president for not being more uplifting in either his rhetoric or with the economy. Republicans held a thunderous, raucous rally — billed as their biggest since the party’s convention — outside Cincinnati to laud Romney and launch dozens of high-profile surrogates across Ohio and into other swing states in the final days.
The procession of Republican lawmakers and policy leaders heralded Romney as the crowd repeatedly chanted: “Four more days!”
“Can we afford four more years?” yelled House Speaker John Boehner, here in his congressional district. “Hell no we can’t!”
Ohio forms the central core of Obama’s “Midwest firewall,’’ an electoral line of defense that includes Wisconsin and Iowa. For Romney, a loss in the state would make his path to the White House extremely difficult. As they criss-cross the country until Election Day, both candidates are expected to make several stops here.
Romney and Obama found fodder in Friday’s jobs report, the final before the election. The unemployment rate in October was 7.9 percent, up from 7.8 percent. Yet the report, compiled by the Labor Department, showed a boost of 171,000 new jobs last month, a higher number than expected.
In addition, the Labor Department said, the nation added about 84,000 more jobs in September and August than previously estimated, another indication that the labor market has accelerated since the spring, when job growth nearly stalled. Economists attributed the rise in the jobless rate to more people entering the job market.
“This morning, we learned that companies hired more workers in October than at any time in the last eight months,” Obama said at a morning rally in Hilliard. “We are making real progress.”
Romney, who has made the nation’s economic woes a mainstay of his campaign, was quick to point out jobs were growing at a slower pace than Obama had predicted when he took office. “I think we’ve almost forgotten what a real recovery can look like,” Romney said in Etna.
It was the 25th consecutive month that US employers added jobs. Since July, the nation has gained an average of about 170,000 jobs a month, compared with about 70,000 a month from April to June.
“There continues to be improvement in the job market, albeit a slow improvement,” said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Global Insight, a forecasting firm in Lexington, Mass. “Is the glass half empty or half full? There’s a fair amount of good news in this report and the good news is that in the US, things are starting to look pretty good.”
The jobs report data has been much anticipated because the candidates have starkly different views of the nation’s economic problems and both were hopeful they could use the numbers to buttress their final arguments. But overall, this report seemed unlikely to significantly affect the race.
“Most Americans know that 7.9 percent is a high number, and one day of numbers doesn’t necessarily change their thinking of the last four years,” said Paul T. Conway, president of Generation Opportunity, an advocacy group for young Americans, who served as chief of staff of the Labor Department between 2005 and 2007.
In Ohio, Obama has maintained a small but consistent lead in the polls. A CNN survey released on Friday indicated that 50 percent of likely voters would choose Obama, compared with 47 percent who backed Romney. The survey of 796 likely voters, conducted Oct 30 to Nov. 1, had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points. “I think you may have noticed that everybody is paying a lot of attention to Ohio,” Obama said in Hilliard. “And rightfully so.”
At his super rally outside Cincinnati, Romney made clear how important Ohio is: “Your state is the one we’re counting on. This is the one we have to win.”
The Republican luminaries ranged from former foes (Governor Rick Perry of Texas) to former nominees (Senator John McCain) to family (his wife, Ann, and all five sons) to his running mate (Paul Ryan) They conveyed, in various ways, how important the election would be. “This is a big election.’’ Ryan said. “We have a really big choice ahead of us.’’
The candidates are starting to turn their stump rhetoric into closing arguments. Romney has significantly retooled his speech for the last four days, completing a transformation into a more moderate candidate in both tone and positions.
His pitch is lofty, and soaring, and attempts to inspire his supporters and detract from Obama’s. “He’s offering excuses; I’ve got a plan. He’s hoping we’ll settle; I can’t wait for us to get started,” Romney said during a morning rally in Wisconsin. “Americans don’t settle. We build, we aspire, we listen to that voice inside us that says, ‘We can do better.’ A better job. A better life for our kids. A bigger, better country.”
In the past week, battle lines in Ohio have formed around the auto industry and a federal bailout that Romney largely opposed in an op-ed in the New York Times headlined, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
Romney has taken out radio and TV ads that insinuate the bailout prompted Chrysler, which received billions of federal dollars, “to build Jeeps in China.” Chrysler has vigorously disputed that any production is shifting from North America to China. The automaker says any additional work in China is related to demand for cars that would be sold in China.
“You’ve got folks who work at the Jeep plant who have been calling their employers worried, asking, ‘Is it true, are our jobs being shipped to China?’” Obama said at a rally outside Columbus. “And the reason they’re making these calls is because Governor Romney has been running an ad that says so — except it’s not true. Everybody knows it’s not true.”
Romney has stood by the ads and is continuing to criticize Obama for the decision to offer federal assistance to automakers. “His mismanagement of the process has exposed taxpayers to a $25 billion loss,” Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said in response to Obama’s criticism. “And these companies are expanding production overseas.”
Megan Woolhouse and Bryan Bender of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@