LOS ANGELES — After a generally good campaign week, Friday was supposed to be a light and easy day for Mitt Romney. All of that changed pretty quickly on Friday morning when the surprisingly bad unemployment numbers provided him an opportunity he has not had all year.
With just 69,000 jobs created in May, a stock market plunge, and a downgrading of previous job estimates, the economic news seemed to align perfectly with Romney’s main case against President Obama. That had not been the case for months.
Since August of last year, the unemployment rate has been on a slow but steady decline, forcing Romney to temper and hedge his statements on the economy and admit that a recovery was under way. Friday was different, and Romney pounced.
“The president’s policies and his handling of the economy has been dealt a harsh indictment this morning,” he said on CNBC, shortly after the release of the job numbers. “Their policies have not worked, and in many respects, their policies have made it harder for the economy to recover. I think that is one of the reasons people are looking for a new direction.”
The numbers represent a setback for the president and a clear opening for Romney, and they came at the end of a week in which the Republican candidate’s campaign seemed to be building some momentum.
Romney’s disciplined performances, and stumbles by the Obama camp, have led to speculation that the campaign may have hit a groove that could alter the dynamics of the race.
“This is an inflection moment where the public is listening to both candidates at a policy level, and for a challenger that’s a huge opportunity,” said David Winston, a Republican strategist. “The problem that Obama has at this point is that people are looking at where he has gotten the economy and whether he will stay the course or change policies. It’s a better policy context for Romney’s campaign and for him. He has a unique chance to lay out his solutions.”
Romney told supporters that when the job numbers were announced, there was a gasp on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
“People were shocked by how few jobs have been created this last month,” he said at a fundraiser in Riverside, Calif.
Polls show that the former Massachusetts governor has emerged from a bruising Republican primary, during which he was often gaffe-prone and off-message, as a strong challenger to Obama.
In three key swing states that Obama won — Iowa, Nevada and Colorado — polls indicated Romney is in a virtual tie with president.
The latest Washington Post/ABC News show him tied with Obama on management of the economy at 47 percent, and narrowing what had been a double-digit gender gap among women to 7 points. Obama is ahead in that group, 51 percent to 44 percent.
On Tuesday, with a win in the Texas primary, Romney surpassed the 1,144 delegates he needed to claim the GOP nomination. That day he drew a big crowd in small-town Colorado, where he hammered the president on energy policy. Ignoring the chatter that it could be harmful to his campaign, Romney teamed up with controversial real estate mogul Donald Trump to raise millions of dollars, arguing that he did not agree with everything his supporters said and did.
Romney said that he “needed to get 50.1 percent or more” to win — and he was willing to do what it took to get it.
Meanwhile, Obama’s attempts to disqualify Romney by highlighting layoffs that occurred at companies bought by his firm Bain Capital continued to take hits from Democrats.
On Thursday, former president Bill Clinton undercut the Obama argument about Romney, declaring: “A man who’s been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold.”
Dogged in the primary by questions of whether he could garner the support of fiscal and social conservatives, Romney has quickly consolidated the GOP base.
He picked up the endorsement of former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and saw some of his biggest crowds for a Memorial Day rally where he was joined on stage by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).