American businesses added 96,000 jobs in September, the Labor Department reported today, a poorer showing than expected in the final employment report before the presidential election, in which job creation is a major issue.

The unemployment rate held steady at 5.4 percent, a figure in line with expectations.

The figures were not "materially" influenced by the string of hurricanes that hit the Florida and other southeastern states, the department said.

The numbers allow Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry to go into tonight's debate repeating his campaign's theme that the country has lost jobs under the Bush administration. There are roughly 821,000 fewer nonfarm jobs in the country than when President Bush took office.

"Our economy has failed to create even enough jobs to cover new workers coming into the job market, not to speak of the millions who are unemployed, working in part-time or temporary jobs or who have given up and dropped out," Kerry said in a statement.

Polling has consistently shown that despite the importance of Iraq as an issue, the economy rates as the number one problem on voters' minds. In the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, those who cite the economy as the top issue go heavily for Kerry, 59 percent to 34 percent.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, in a statement, said the economy "has been through a great deal lately -- devastating hurricanes and rising oil prices." The new figures show "the strength and resilience of our economy and that the labor market continues to improve," she said.

The 96,000 figure was substantially smaller than the growth of 145,000 jobs predicted by economists.

"The September employment report was certainly disappointing, though not disastrous," said Stephen Stanley, chief economist for Greenwich Capital Management, in a note to clients. "The most troubling aspect . . . is that there is no clear evidence that we are regaining momentum on the hiring front. This lends credence to the anecdotal reports that businesses are sitting on their hands for a time -- you pick the reason (oil prices, the election, terrorism, etc.,)"

"I wouldn't want to be in President Bush's shoes," Ken Mayland of ClearView Economics told the Associated Press. "He had better prepare himself for an onslaught . . . The reality is that a 96,000 increase in a work force of a 131 million base is an anemic rise, and is in no way a satisfactory increase."

"We're creating jobs, just not at a spectacular pace," Richard Yamarone, chief economist at Argus Research Corp. in New York, told the Bloomberg news service.

The nation needs to add about 150,000 jobs a month to keep pace with population growth, according to economists. While employers have added jobs for 12 consecutive months, the gains have exceeded that level in only four of those months.

Many employers remain reluctant to add to their payrolls because of competitive pressures to hold down costs and continuing uncertainty about the strength of the economic recovery, analysts say.

Many economists thought that the onslaught of successive hurricanes over the past month might seriously skew the results for September, but the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics, which issues the jobs reports, found otherwise.

"At the national level," the BLS said, "the severe weather appears to have held down employment growth, but not enough to change materially the Bureau's assessment of the employment situation in September."

Other analyses also found no evidence of weather distortions. Manufacturing and retail jobs fell significantly. Construction jobs were stable. And jobs in the leisure industry, finance, real estate and government grew.

Average hourly earnings were up by 0.2 percent.