PITTSBURGH -- Disappointing job growth jolted the presidential campaign four months before Election Day, and the candidates quickly put their vastly different views on display, underscoring the economy as the central issue between President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney.
Obama sought consolation from hiring figures that showed at least some job growth still under way, calling them a "step in the right direction" and pleading with voters to stick with him. Romney spoke of misery across the nation, said Obama would do nothing but deepen it and addressed a disgruntled middle class by saying, "This kick in the gut has got to end."
Overall, the stand-pat nature of the new data was not a game-changer in the close presidential contest -- one in which the president's approval ratings hover around or slightly below 50 percent and he retains a slight lead, if any, over Romney.
While no president since the Great Depression has sought re-election with unemployment as high as it is now, Obama has proven to be a resilient campaigner while Romney has come under conservative criticism, accused of playing it too safe and muddling his message.
The lackluster jobs report showed a net of only 80,000 jobs created in June and an unemployment rate unchanged at 8.2 percent.
Even as the economy dominates the political landscape, fallout from the Supreme Court's decision on healthcare and Romney's shifting response to it also continues to reverberate.
The president accused Romney of caving in to the pressure of conservatives in his party on the question of whether the health insurance requirement carries a "penalty" or a "tax."
The former governor of Massachusetts had little to say when pressed about that, turning all attention back to job creation.
"It's still tough out there," Obama conceded to a campaign crowd in Poland, Ohio, a small town outside Youngstown. He noted that the private-sector jobs created in June contributed to 4.4 million new jobs over the past 28 months, including 500,000 in manufacturing.
"That's a step in the right direction," he said. But he added: "We've got to grow the economy even faster, and we have to put even more people back to work."
Obama spent two days campaigning by bus in Ohio and Pennsylvania, hotly contested battlegrounds whose modest economic gains he hopes to leverage into a case for his re-election. And he criticized Romney for pushing economic ideas that, the president said, have been tried without success before.
Romney, speaking earlier in New Hampshire, used virtually the same argument, saying Obama represents liberal policies that have been discredited.