NEW YORK (AP) _ President Bush and Democratic rival John Kerry clashed Friday over figures showing modest monthly jobs growth as they plunged into a nine-week post-convention sprint toward Election Day.
Previous presidents ``have faced wars and recessions, but not one of them has failed to create a single job,'' Kerry said. He said the most recent statistics made it inevitable that Bush's term would end with a net loss of employment.
Not surprisingly, Bush offered a different interpretation.
``Overall, we've added about 1.7 million jobs since August 2003. The unemployment rate is down to 5.4 percent,'' he said. ``That's nearly a full point below the rate last summer and below the average of the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s.''
Bush was in Pennsylvania, Kerry in next-door Ohio on the day after the close of the Republican National Convention. The two rivals are locked in a close race for the White House, according to public opinion polls, and are concentrating their efforts in 20 battleground states.
As in any presidential election, the economy figures prominently in the race for the White House, particularly in industrial states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The latest government jobs report lent itself to competing interpretations.
It showed the overall unemployment rate fell to 5.4 percent in August from 5.5 percent the previous month and was at the lowest level since October 2001. The economy added 144,000 jobs last month, slightly less than economists were forecasting but still the biggest gain since May.
In a statement released ahead of an appearance in Newark, Ohio, Kerry said Bush ``is now certain to be the first president since the Great Depression to face re-election without creating a single job.''
At an appearance in Scranton, Pa., Bush said the statewide unemployment is 5.3 percent. ``Our growing economy is spreading prosperity and opportunity, and nothing will hold us back,'' he said in an echo of Thursday night's prime time speech that brought the GOP convention to a close.
At the Republican gathering in New York's Madison Square Garden, Bush stood a few miles from where two hijacked planes destroyed the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, to make a nationally broadcast appeal to Americans for another term. ``In the last four years, you and I have come to know each other. Even when we don't agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand,'' he said.
He boasted of first-term accomplishments, outlined plans for a second-term agenda and criticized Kerry on both domestic and foreign policy counts. ``My opponent's policies are dramatically different from ours,'' he said, calling Kerry's agenda ``policies of the past.''
``Voters will make a choice based on the records we have built, the convictions we hold and the vision that guides us forward,'' Bush said, standing alone on an elevated theater-in-the-round platform in Madison Square Garden.
Kerry quickly joined the fray, flying from his home state of Massachusetts to Springfield, Ohio, where he delivered a broadside against Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney at a midnight rally.
``They have attacked my patriotism and my fitness to serve as commander in chief,'' Kerry said. ``I'm not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and by those who have misled the nation into Iraq.''
Bush served stateside in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War era, while five student and marriage deferments kept Cheney out of military service. Kerry, who has served in the Senate for the past two decades, has made his own Vietnam combat service in the Navy a centerpiece of his campaign.
``Misleading our nation into war in Iraq makes you unfit to lead this country,'' Kerry added. ``Doing nothing while this nation loses millions of jobs makes you unfit to lead this country. Letting 45 million Americans go without health care makes you unfit to lead this country. Letting the Saudi Royal Family control our energy costs makes you unfit to lead this country,'' Kerry told several thousand supporters.
In New York, Bush unapologetically defended his decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.
``Because we acted to defend our country, the murderous regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban are history, more than 50 million people have been liberated, and democracy is coming to the broader Middle East,'' the president said.
Polls show the nation deeply divided on the wisdom of going to war with Iraq, where violence continues despite a turnover of control in June to an Iraqi interim government and as the U.S. death toll there is fast approaching 1,000.
First lady Laura Bush joined her husband on stage for the Madison Square Garden finale, followed by Cheney and his wife and extended families, as the convention came to a festive made-for-television conclusion in a blizzard of red, white and blue balloons, confetti, and streamers.
Bush said that in a second term, he would lead a bipartisan drive ``to reform and simplify'' the federal income tax, which he called ``a complicated mess filled with special interest loopholes.''
He also outlined a variety of proposals, most of them floated before, to provide tax and other incentives to help people buy homes, start small businesses and get job training; to encourage investment in economically distressed areas; and to give people more say in managing their own health care and retirement finances.
Bush also dusted off a proposal to allow younger workers to divert a few percentage points of their Social Security payroll taxes into 401(K)-like investment funds. Bush abandoned an earlier version of the proposal after a post-Sept. 11 fall in the stock market.
Bush also revived his ``compassionate conservative'' theme from 2000, saying he believed ``that government should help people improve their lives, not try to run their lives.''
He contrasted his policies with Kerry's vow to roll back many of the Bush tax cuts to help fund an expanded government health care program and to help strapped workers.
The president at times used self-deprecating humor to present his case for another term.
``Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called `walking.' Now and then I come across as a little too blunt _ and for that we can all thank the white-haired lady sitting right up there,'' he said, indicating his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, sitting alongside his beaming father, the first President Bush.