President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry went through their final preparations today for a potentially crucial debate in St. Louis, Mo., that is expected to raise a range of issues from the war in Iraq to the state of the U.S. economy.

The nationally televised encounter at Washington University, scheduled to start at 9 p.m. Eastern time and last 90 minutes, is the second of three between Bush and his Democratic challenger. But unlike the first and third debates, the one tonight takes place in a town-hall format, with questions put to the candidates by voters in the audience and no restrictions on topics. The first debate was devoted to foreign policy and national security matters, while the third is to focus on domestic issues.

Expected to figure prominently tonight and in the final presidential debate Oct. 13 is the issue of jobs, which became fodder today for both campaigns after the Labor Department issued a new report.

The report said the economy added 96,000 jobs in September and that unemployment held steady at a rate of 5.4 percent. But the number of new jobs failed to meet expectations, falling well short of the 150,000 a month needed just to keep pace with population growth. And while new jobs have been added for 12 straight months, the nation has about 821,000 fewer nonfarm jobs than when President Bush took office.

The Bush campaign sought to portray the jobs report, the last to be released before the Nov. 2 election, in a positive light. A new television advertisement released today, entitled "Nearly Two Million," points out that the economy has added nearly 2 million jobs "in just over a year."

A statement announcing the ad release credited "the president's pro-growth policies" for the increase, which it specified amounts to 1.9 million payroll jobs since April 2003, a period of 18 months.

Kerry, however, called the jobs report "disappointing." In a statement, the four-term senator from Massachusetts said that "1.6 million private sector jobs" have been lost since January 2001, making Bush "the first president in 72 years to face the electorate with an economy that has lost jobs under his watch."

Moreover, Kerry said, the jobs being created pay an average of $9,000 less than those lost and often lack health care and pension benefits.

"Even over this last year, 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. "The president does not seem to understand how many middle-class families are being squeezed by falling incomes, and spiraling health care, tuition and energy costs."

Bush conferred with top aides today in preparation for the debate and went fishing in the rain in Missouri to relax, the Associated Press reported from St. Louis. He has watched tapes of his first debate last week in Florida and will seek to avoid the scowls and other facial expressions that contributed to a negative impression, the agency said.

Kerry spent a couple of days preparing for the debate in Colorado before flying to St. Louis last night.

Ken Mehlman, chairman of the campaign of Bush and Vice President Cheney, suggested in a statement that Kerry should be asked tonight to "defend a 30-year record of being wrong with defense" and explain how "11 different positions on the war in Iraq can be called 'consistent.' "

Mehlman added, "It's an opportunity for him to explain how he can be for the findings of the 9/11 Commission, yet yesterday miss a vote on the 9/11 Commission report findings being enacted into law."

Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney campaign, said in the same statement, "We think this race has settled into about a two-point advantage for us right now."

According to the latest Zogby International tracking poll for Reuters news agency, Bush leads Kerry by 46 percent to 45 percent -- a statistical tie. Pollster John Zogby said independents are almost evenly split, with Kerry holding an edge over Bush by 44 percent to 41 percent among those voters.

Despite any wish-list of questions by the campaigns, the choice of what to ask will be up to the debate's moderator, Charles Gibson of ABC, and the 15 to 20 people whose questions he chooses.

Citizen-questioners selected by the Gallup organization will gather several hours before the debate, Washington Post staff writer Peter Slevin reported from St. Louis. They will write down their questions, which will be reviewed by Gibson. He has sole discretion over which questions will be asked.

While they wait, the participants will be fed, said Washington University executive Steve Givens. In addition, they will be given games to play, said Givens, who reported that an aide set out last night to buy Monopoly and Scrabble board games, as well as dominoes, checkers and cards.

Vice President Cheney, who debated Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards on Tuesday, planned to watch tonight's Bush-Kerry encounter privately in Tampa, Fla., then address a rally of supporters there, Washington Post staff writer Ovetta Wiggins reported.

Cheney plans to remain in Florida, a key battleground state, until Saturday, when he is scheduled to attend a fundraiser in Jacksonville for Mel Martinez, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Edwards, a first-term senator from North Carolina, campaigned in Scranton, Pa., today, using the Labor Department's jobs numbers to bolster his criticisms that the Bush administration's policies have been "wrong for America," Washington Post staff writer Chris L. Jenkins reported.

After a day spent largely attacking Bush and Cheney on homeland security, Edwards said this morning that the numbers underscored poor domestic policy decisions made by the Republicans.

As he addressed about 300 highly energetic partisans at Scranton's Masonic Temple, the crowd chanted, "No more Bush!"

Many of the new jobs "are minimum-wage jobs, fast-food restaurants, janitorial jobs, part-time jobs," Edwards said. "The truth is we need a president and a vice president that will fight as hard for your jobs as they fight for their own jobs," he added, bringing the crowd to its feet.

The criticism seemed tailor-made for the crowd in Scranton, a hardscrabble northeastern Pennsylvania city that has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs over the last several years.

"We believe that we should get rid of tax cuts for American companies sending jobs overseas," Edwards said. "How about a little common sense?"