The Labor Department reported sluggish job growth Friday, as employers added 96,000 jobs in August. The unemployment rate fell to 8.1 percent from 8.3 percent in July but that was only because more people gave up looking for work.
Romney immediately seized on the latest numbers as further evidence that Obama's efforts to fix the economy have failed. The president said the numbers weren't good enough but sought more time for the recovery.
The Labor Department will release two more monthly jobless reports, including one just four days before Election Day.
Also watch the Federal Reserve's actions when it meets next week. It could dramatically boost the sluggish economy by announcing a third round of bond purchases designed to push long-term interest rates lower. Fed action would send the stock market soaring and boost many people's retirement accounts, at least in the short term.
Congress returns for two weeks on Monday but will probably steer clear of the big election issues: taxes, deficits, health care, the economy and jobs. Its biggest task is passing a $524 billion spending bill to keep federal agencies operating through next March and prevent any possibility of a politically explosive government shutdown before the election.
Issues that might spill into the presidential race: disagreements over drought relief for livestock producers — an issue important to rural voters in swing state Iowa and elsewhere — and an increase in food stamp funding, which Republicans oppose.
The race is so tight that one misstep in the three presidential debates could greatly influence who wins.
—The first debate, Oct. 3 in Denver, focuses on domestic policy.
—Two weeks later, on Oct. 16, the Obama and Romney meet for a town hall-style session in Hempstead, N.Y.
—On Oct. 22, two weeks before the election, foreign policy is the topic for the last presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla., a swing state critical for the candidates.
—And on the undercard, Vice President Joe Biden debates Rep. Paul Ryan on Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky.
With debates, it's important to watch as well as listen. Despite hours of study and practice to get their best lines down pat, it's sometimes actions, not words that prove memorable. Remember 1960, when people listening on the radio were certain Richard Nixon had won a debate, while those watching TV awarded it squarely to John F. Kennedy.
In 2000, Democrat Al Gore's sighs lived on long after his words in his debates with Republican George W. Bush. Eight years earlier, Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, was caught looking at his watch during a town-hall debate with Democrat Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.
His response came as an audience member was talking about how much the deep recession had personally affected him. Bush, who lost that election, later said that he was thinking: "Only 10 more minutes of this crap."
LINGO TO KNOW
—Swing state: A state with a recent history of swinging its vote from one party to the other in presidential elections. Nevada, Colorado, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa and Virginia.
—Battleground state: States where one or both sides are spending money on TV ads, staff on the ground, candidate visits and so forth, either in hopes of winning or to force the other side to spend money playing defense. So far this year, that's all the swing states, plus Wisconsin. Pennsylvania and Michigan also have seen action.
—Super PAC: A new breed of political committee that can raise and spend limitless amounts of money but isn't allowed to directly coordinate its activities with the Romney or Obama campaigns. The candidates can endorse these committees, however, and send former aides to run them.
—Electoral College: Candidates win the presidency not by winning the popular vote, but by getting a majority of votes in the Electoral College. States are apportioned votes based on the number of senators and representatives they have in Congress, and all but two — Maine and Nebraska — award their electoral votes in winner-take-all style.