By JIM KUHNHENN
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - The nation's jobless loom over President Barack Obama's presidential campaign. At no point will that association be more evident than Friday when the government reveals the nation's most recent unemployment numbers just hours after Obama wraps up his convention pitch and sets off on a tour of critical swing states.
No doubt, the economy has defined the presidential race. Voters say it's their top issue and presidential challenger Mitt Romney has made it his central theme as he prosecutes his case against Obama. But the economy has also provided little variation. It has been marked by sluggish growth and a jobs flat line that has done little to alter the dynamics of the presidential contest.
The most recent consensus from economists is that the economy in August added a net of 135,000 jobs - that would be down from the 163,000 added in July, but would likely keep the unemployment rate at 8.3 percent for another month.
By the current economy's standards, that's the kind of middling report that political analysts say won't change what has been a remarkably tight presidential contest.
"If there were 300,000 jobs created in August, that would be a big boost - we would shout and holler," said former Democratic Party Chairman Don Fowler. "If it were zero it would be just the opposite. The Republicans would rejoice. If it's 100,000, it will be a continuation of the kind of not-too-optimistic view and it would have very little result on the campaign."
Even so, barring an unexpected spike in jobs and lower unemployment, Republicans are certain to seize on Friday's numbers as evidence of failed policies. Obama's team hopes the president's convention pitch - and the glossy images that will go along with it - will compete with or even trump the economic stats.
The president typically receives the jobless numbers from his Council of Economic Advisers the evening before their release on the first Friday of every month. Obama aides said Tuesday that they didn't know whether the president would get his preview before or after he delivers his address.
Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter carefully avoided raising expectations about Obama's ability to gain on Romney following his convention speech.
"We're not predicting a bounce because this race is so close I think it's difficult for any extreme movement in any direction," she said during a panel discussion with ABC News/Yahoo! News.
Fowler, however, said the convention speeches and Obama's performance in particular could jar the race loose.
"If Obama gets 5 percent, they would be really hard pressed to catch him," he said.
Still, the economy remains a burden for Obama. Unemployment has topped 8 percent for 42 straight months - the longest such stretch on record since World War II. No president since the Great Depression has been re-elected with joblessness so high. At the same time, the national debt soared past $16 trillion on Tuesday, according to a Treasury Department statement.
Still, the stock market is improving, signaling potential growth in workers' 401k retirement accounts, and every week appears to bring competing economic indicators in a see-saw of encouraging and discouraging news.
In the face of that, Obama's camp still feels a need to make an economic argument. Former President Bill Clinton, Wednesday's featured speaker at the Democratic convention, will remind delegates of the booming economy during his presidency. And after struggling with the question earlier this week, other Obama surrogates will make the case for how the country has improved economically since he took office.
"President Clinton has an economic record second to none," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said during the ABC News/Yahoo! News discussion. "He's a very credible messenger on this. He's going to give a very compelling speech."
Until now, the Obama campaign has been careful not to overstate any economic high points, fearing that it would stand in stark contrast to the 23 million who remain unemployed or underemployed and the mortgage crisis that still afflicts millions of Americans.
Fowler faults the Obama campaign for waiting so long to make their case aggressively. "They have been derelict," he said.
Also central to Obama's economic argument is that the election is not a referendum on his performance, but a choice between him and Romney.
"I think the contrast between his approach, which says you've got to invest in your workforce, you've got to build your infrastructure, you've got to have the research and development that looks for the next generation of jobs, that's a business plan that's much better than the business plan that has been offered by Romney/Ryan," Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia said.
Still, Obama has also tried to take the debate away from the economy, casting Romney as out of touch, criticizing his tenure as a private equity businessman and head of Bain Capital, and going after his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, for proposing a voucher-like system for Medicare.
Republican pollster Wes Anderson says Romney would have an advantage if the campaign remained focused on the economy. But he doubts it will.
"If the Romney campaign was able to seize the effort and hold the effort and every day was another discussion on the economy, I'd put money on us winning," he said. "Making the next eight weeks solely about the economy is easier said than done. We're going to hear more about Bain. We're going to hear an awful lot about where to put blame on for the economy. And we'll get at least one more round of Ryan and Medicare."
Associated Press writer Ken Thomas contributed to this report.
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