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The X factor

JOBS

Left, the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey; above, President Obama comforts a victim  Photographs: AFP/Getty
Left, the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey; above, President Obama comforts a victim Photographs: AFP/Getty

AS Barack Obama and Mitt Romney battled it out his weekend in the key swing states of Ohio and Wisconsin, the government reported the jobless rate ticked up to 7.9% in October but that employers also stepped up their hiring.

In Wisconsin, where polls show Romney trailing Obama, the Republican said the jobs report was more evidence of the president's failing leadership.

"The question of this election comes down to this: do you want more of the same or do you want real change?" Romney said.

Romney stepped up his attack in Ohio, the most heavily contested swing state and a vital cog in the electoral mathematics for both candidates. At a huge rally near Cincinnati, Kid Rock warmed up the crowd with the Romney signature song, Born Free.

"Your state is the one I'm counting on," Romney told thousands of cheering supporters. "This is the one we have to win."

Obama was also in Ohio, where he said the jobs report was evidence "we have made real progress". Obama's federal rescue of the auto industry has been popular in a state where one in eight jobs is linked to that industry. He hammered Romney for a recent statement claiming that Chrysler planned to move Jeep production to China. Chrysler has refuted that, noting it was adding workers to build more Jeeps in Ohio.

Obama said that Romney – who opposed a government bailout of the auto industry – was trying to scare workers in a bid to make up ground in Ohio. "I know we're close to an election, but this isn't a game. These are people's jobs, these are people's lives," Obama said. "You don't scare hard-working Americans just to scare up some votes."

Obama's advisers said the Jeep controversy, which has featured heavily in the state's media, had helped the president solidify his lead in Ohio.

HURRICANE SANDY

In the last month before a presidential election, campaign teams fret that an "October surprise" will upend the contest. More often than not, these unexpected events generate a lot of ink but have a negligible impact on the outcome – the revelation that George W Bush was once arrested for drink-driving was greeted with a polls shrug in 2000.

Until now, Jimmy Carter's failure to negotiate the release of a group of Americans held hostage in Iran was the only exception. But Obama's handling of Hurricane Sandy may have won him another four years in the White House.

Romney was back on the campaign trail on Thursday, a day ahead of Obama, but the chance to bank early votes and mobilise supporters in Virginia was insignificant compared to the week of free publicity for Obama. While Romney held a "relief event" in Ohio (at which he appealed for canned goods that the Red Cross has said it doesn't want), Obama was co-ordinating the federal response to the storm.

The Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, effusively praised the administration. "I spoke to the president three times," he said, the day after Sandy hit. "He has been incredibly supportive and helpful to our state and not once did he bring up the election."

Christie gave the keynote speech at the Republican convention, so his comments came as a surprise, bearing in mind the Grand Old Party's disciplined refusal to give Obama credit for anything.

Christie has long-term presidential ambitions of his own and a re-election campaign is coming up in his Democratic-leaning state, so the shots of him touring the disaster zone with Obama are politically useful, but he threw Romney under the bus with more zeal than anyone could have predicted.

In June 2011, Romney was asked at a Republican primary debate whether he would cut funding to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "Absolutely," was his answer. "Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction." In Ohio last week, when pressed to say whether he still thinks Fema should be dismantled, he stalked away from reporters without a word.

Obama's ostensibly politics-free response is anything but, of course. By cancelling campaign events to work with Christie, he undermined one of Romney's arguments: that the president has failed to deliver on his promises of bi-partisanship and is incapable of cutting deals with Republicans. The recovery effort also vividly demonstrates that there are some things that the federal government does best – and recent efforts provide an unspoken contrast to the tragically botched response to Hurricane Katrina on George Bush's watch.

The storm may cost Obama some votes as people struggle to get to the polls, but the opportunity to burnish his presidential aura has been worth much more.

BENGHAZI

since the terrorist attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, conservative media outlets have pressured the Obama administration for an explanation of what happened and why it wasn't possible to save the four Americans who were killed.

On Fox News, Jennifer Griffin reported that CIA personnel based at an annex about a mile from the consulate were told to "stand down" when they wanted to repel the attack. The network also said the same officers requested military support when the annex itself came under fire, but that their request was denied.

Charles Woods, whose son Tyrone was one of the CIA operatives killed, told right-wing Fox host Sean Hannity that the White House officials who allegedly refused to authorise military strikes "are guilty of murdering my son".

The administration's response to the attacks has been slippery, at best. The US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, initially said the attack began as a riot in response to a film offensive to Muslims. She has since blamed poor intelligence from Libya for the "evolving" version of events.

Obama has settled on a formula for answering questions about Benghazi that is part dodge, part bluster: "I gave three very clear directives. Number one, make sure that we are securing our personnel and doing whatever we need to. Number two, we're going to investigate exactly what happened to make sure it doesn't happen again. Number three, find out who did this so we can bring them to justice."

The CIA stated that "no-one at any level in the agency told anybody not to help those in need". A spokesperson for defence secretary Leon Panetta rejected suggestions that a rapid response team could have been scrambled from Sicily or Spain and said troops were dispatched from Tripoli, but arrived too late to save ambassador Christopher Stevens and his colleagues.

Nevertheless, there has been enough confusion and obfuscation for Mitt Romney's campaign to exploit, in an election that has been remarkable for the Democratic president's ownership of the national security issue. But from the second debate onwards, the Republican challenger has fluffed his lines.

When Romney accused the president during a debate of flying to a political fundraiser the day after the attack, it provoked a forceful response. Obama said: "The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden, and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror. And the suggestion that anybody in my team - would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive - That's not what I do as commander-in-chief."

Romney doubled down, claiming that "it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror". This drew an amused "get the transcript" from Obama and "he did in fact, sir" from the moderator, Candy Crowley. Romney was visibly shaken by being corrected and has backed off the issue ever since.

In the third presidential debate, about foreign policy, he spent most of the time agreeing with Obama. An opportunity had been missed, and when Hurricane Sandy hit, all hopes of Benghazi being his last trump card were gone.

THE ISsUES THAT WILL DECIDE

THE us presidential battle

by andrew purcell in new york

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