By JULIE PACE and CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER
CLEVELAND - Unemployment rates fell last month in nearly all of the battleground states that will determine the presidential winner, giving President Barack Obama fresh fodder to argue that voters should stick with him in an election focused squarely on the economy.
The declines, however, were modest. It's unknown whether they will do much to sway undecided voters who are considering whether to back Republican Mitt Romney or give the Democratic president four more years.
The statewide data released by the Labor Department on Friday provide one of the last comprehensive looks at the health of the U.S. economy ahead of Election Day, now a little more than two weeks away. Voters will get one more update on the national unemployment rate just days before the election. But the state reports matter greatly to the Obama and Romney campaigns, which believe the public's impressions of the economy are shaped mostly by local conditions rather than national ones.
In Ohio, perhaps the most crucial battleground state for both Obama and Romney, the unemployment rate ticked down last month to 7 percent from 7.2 percent, below the national average of 7.8 percent.
"I knew a lot of people who were laid off and now they're working," said firefighter Matt Sparling, an Obama supporter from Parma Heights, Ohio. "So something good is happening here."
Obama's team is banking on the president getting credit for improvements in Ohio's economy, particularly for the bailout of the auto industry, which has deep roots in the Midwestern swing state. But Romney has opportunities to run on the economy in Ohio, too. The state actually lost nearly 13,000 jobs in September and the drop in the unemployment rate was probably due in part to people dropping out of the job market.
Obama's campaign released a new ad in Ohio on Friday, touting the president's rescue of General Motors and Chrysler. Without the auto bailout, one man in the ad says, "Ohio would have collapsed." Another man says, "Mitt Romney would have just let us go under - just let them go bankrupt." The ad's tagline shows the map of Ohio with the words: "Mitt Romney. Not one of us."
The president didn't mention the state jobless numbers during a campaign stop Friday in Virginia, one of two battleground states where the rate didn't drop. It held steady at the relatively low level of 5.9 percent.
Spirited on other topics, Obama quipped in a raucous rally at George Mason University that a case of "Romnesia" was preventing his opponent from remembering his own stances on health care, energy and a slate of policies.
"He's forgetting what his own positions are - and he's betting that you will, too," Obama said. "We've got to name this condition that he's going through. I think it's called Romnesia."
Romney was headlining a rally in Florida Friday evening after spending much of the day in New York meeting with advisers.
The candidates were stepping off the campaign trail this weekend for debate preparations ahead of Monday's third and final face-off in Boca Raton, Fla. Romney was staying in South Florida to practice, while Obama and top aides headed to Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, to prepare for the foreign policy-focused debate.
International issues competed with the economy for voters' attention Friday, as fresh questions arose over what the White House knew when about the deadly attack on Americans in Libya.
Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan accused Obama of stonewalling, telling Milwaukee radio station WTMJ that the president was refusing to answer even basic questions.
"His response has been inconsistent, it's been misleading," Ryan said.
Romney and Ryan have criticized the administration for saying at first that the attack was a spontaneous mob reaction to an anti-Muslim video on YouTube when they now acknowledge it was a terrorist attack. U.S. officials told The Associated Press that the CIA station chief in Libya reported to Washington within 24 hours of the attack to say there was evidence it was carried out by militants, although it's unclear who received that information right away.
Despite increased focus on Libya, the economy remains the No. 1 election issue for most voters.
Friday's jobs report showed the unemployment rate falling slightly in seven battleground states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin. Rates held steady at 5.7 percent in New Hampshire and 5.9 percent in Virginia. Unemployment in both states has long been well below the national average.
Nevada's 11.8 percent rate is the highest nationally. Iowa has the lowest battleground state rate, with 5.2 percent out of work.
Obama has staked his re-election prospects on the notion that the economic crisis he inherited is easing. He's been backed by positive trends for a handful of recent economic indicators, as well as polls showing the public's view of the economy is improving.
But millions of Americans are still out of work, giving Romney an opportunity to cast the president as ineffective in solving the country's economic troubles. Romney, too, has plenty of economic data to back up his argument, including disappointing earnings reports Friday from major companies, including Microsoft and McDonald's.
Both campaigns say the last round of data released ahead of Election Day is unlikely to sway voters who have been living the reality of the economic downturn and weak recovery for more than four years.
John Patterson, 25, a recent college graduate from North Carolina, said he doesn't have to look at unemployment numbers to know things aren't good in his home state. He's sent out resumes and had a few interviews but is still unemployed.
Patterson voted for Obama four years ago, but says he's not sure he'll do the same this time around.
"Things haven't really changed, have they?" he said. "I mean, too many people are still out of work."
Back in Ohio, Diana Huddleston said the falling unemployment rate has done little to help her personal economic situation. Her husband lost his jobs a few years back when an aluminum producer in the region cut back. He eventually found work as a dishwasher, Huddleston said, but that position comes with much lower pay.
Huddleston says she doesn't plan to vote in the presidential election because "nothing is going to change here."