U.S. job growth slowed last month as manufacturers, airlines and retailers shed workers, the government reported yesterday in its last official snapshot of the labor market before the presidential election.

Employers added 96,000 non-farm jobs last month, down from 128,000 in August, as losses in some industries were more than offset by hires in others, such as real estate, construction and temporary help services.

September was the fourth-straight month of gains below the roughly 150,000 a month that many economists estimate are necessary to keep pace with population growth. The unemployment rate held steady at 5.4 percent as hundreds of thousands of people stopped looking for work and therefore were not counted among the jobless, the Labor Department said.

The job report provided ammunition for both presidential campaigns just hours before the second of three candidate debates.

"Today's employment report shows the steady creation of jobs fueled by the pro-growth policies and strong economic leadership of President Bush," said Treasury Secretary John W. Snow in a statement, noting that payrolls grew by nearly 2 million jobs over the past 13 months.

Democrats seized on the fact that the total number of jobs has fallen by more than half a million since January 2001, when Bush took office.

"President Bush will be the first president in 72 years to face the electorate with an economy that has lost jobs under his watch," Democratic candidate John F. Kerry said in a written statement yesterday morning.

The September increase in jobs was probably depressed somewhat by the four hurricanes that struck the Southeast in the last two months, but not enough to "materially" change the overall picture, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said in a written statement.

Stocks fell as the slowing pace of job creation and rising price of oil fanned investor fears that the economy will turn more sluggish. U.S. benchmark crude oil for November delivery closed at a record $53.31 a barrel yesterday on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Heating oil closed at $1.454 a gallon.

Analysts disagreed over whether the report reflected a weakening economy. But they agreed that employers remain reluctant to hire as employee benefit costs soar, energy costs climb, consumer confidence slips and the economic outlook remains clouded by fears of terrorism.

The report shows "a continuation of the disappointing job recovery we've had" from the 2001 recession, said Anthony Chan, senior economist with JPMorgan Fleming Asset Management. "These days you think long and hard before you hire someone."

Chan is among the economists, including many at the Federal Reserve, who argue that the economic expansion remains on track, at a moderate pace. They note the recent increases in business investment and auto sales and widespread forecasts that the pace of economic growth picked up in the July-through-September quarter. Several believe hiring would take off if not for the psychological factors holding businesses back.

"The economic mantra by businesses is 'caution,' " said Sung Won Sohn, chief economic officer of Wells Fargo Bank. "Uncertainties stemming from the upcoming election, Iraq, oil, interest rates etc. have become a wedge between jobs and reasonably healthy economic fundamentals."

Others contend the recent meager job gains are both a cause and a symptom of an economy that is losing steam, because of factors holding back both businesses and consumers.

A slower pace of job growth means smaller gains in personal income at a time when consumers are also paying more for health care and energy. Personal spending was flat in August. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Gap Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. are among retailers that have reported disappointing sales for last month. Just this week, AT&T Corp. and Bank of America Corp. announced plans to cut thousands of jobs.

The September labor report reflects "deteriorating economic conditions," said Richard Yamarone, director of economic research for Argus Research Corp. "There's simply no need to step up the pace of hiring."

This will not suddenly change after the election, Yamarone added. "Jobs cannot and will not be created by any spectacular pace with a Bush or Kerry victory."

The number of workers on the nation's payrolls in September was 821,000 lower than when Bush was inaugurated, although that figure may shrink by about 236,000 when the Labor Department makes it annual revisions to the job data, in February.

Peter Coppa, 50, of Dixmont, Maine, said the rising price of heating oil has him chopping more firewood to warm his home while he trains to find a new job.

Coppa had worked for a paper mill near his home for 23 years until it closed in January. Now he is studying to become an auto mechanic and hopes to graduate in July. Until then, he is living on unemployment insurance benefits and looking for part-time work to help pay his bills.

"I'm just hoping this schooling works out for me," he said. "Right now . . . there's no security."

One of the biggest sources of job gains in September was temporary jobs, which grew by 33,000, equivalent to about a third of the month's net increase.

Darcy Halvorsen, 37, of South Portland, Maine, said she has been working in temporary positions since a year ago, when she lost her job as a case manager with the U.S. District Court in Portland because of budget cuts. Her old job paid $39,000 a year; her temp jobs typically pay around $10 to $11 an hour, she said.

Halvorsen said she is hoping to start a full-time job next week as a real estate assistant, for $32,000 a year and no benefits. "Well, hopefully next week," she said. "I keep my fingers crossed. I've been disappointed before."

Unemployment among white workers was unchanged last month at 4.7 percent. Black joblessness eased slightly to 10.3 percent in September from 10.4 percent the month before. Unemployment rose slightly among Hispanics and Latinos to 7.1 percent from 6.9 percent.

Economists agreed that the Fed remains likely to raise its benchmark overnight interest rate to 2 percent from 1.75 percent at its next scheduled policymaking meeting in November.Washington Post staff writer Justin Blum contributed to this report.