FAIRFAX, Va. -- Mitt Romney was still celebrating his widely praised debate performance when the campaign lurched in a different direction Friday.

Unemployment dropped last month to the lowest level since 2009, and suddenly it was President Barack Obama's turn to smile.

In a race dominated by the weak economy, Obama said Friday the creation of 114,000 jobs in September, coupled with a drop in unemployment to 7.8 percent, was "a reminder that this country has come too far to turn back now." Jabbing at his rival's plans, he declared, "We've made too much progress to return to the policies that caused this crisis in the first place."

Romney saw little to like in the new numbers.

"This is not what a real recovery looks like," the former Massachusetts governor and businessman said, an analysis echoed by other Republicans throughout the day. "We created fewer jobs in September than in August, and fewer jobs in August than in July, and we've lost over 600,000 manufacturing jobs since President Obama took office," Romney added.

Counting labor force dropouts, the real job rate "would be closer to 11 percent," he said.

The candidates campaigned in battleground states during the day, each man starting out in Virginia before the president headed for Ohio and Romney flew to Florida. Those three states, along with Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Iowa, make up the nine battleground states where the race is likely to be decided. Among them, they account for 110 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House.

Recent polls have shown Obama with leads in most if not all of them, although the impact of Wednesday's debate and the drop in unemployment has not yet been fully measured.

But some conservatives who saw the numbers as a boon to Obama floated conspiracy theories that the data were bogus.

Former General Electric chief executive Jack Welch, a Republican, tweeted his skepticism.

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"Unbelievable jobs numbers . . these Chicago guys will do anything . . can't debate so change numbers," Welch said, referring to the site of Obama campaign headquarters.

Later in the day, he said on MSNBC, "I have no evidence to prove that, I just raised the question." But he stood by it.

Conn Carroll, an editorial writer at the Washington Examiner, tweeted: "I don't think BLS [Bureau of Labor Statistics] cooked numbers. I think a bunch of Dems lied about getting jobs. That would have same effect."

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said it was "ludicrous" to suggest the data had been manipulated. The data are compiled by career employees -- not political appointees -- who work under tight security to avoid political interference.