WASHINGTON - Sputtering along, the economy is offering some hope but no illuminating help to voters who are mired in a weak jobs recovery and flooded with familiar promises from President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney. A new employment snapshot seemed too mixed and middling to jolt a consistently close race.
Three months shy of Election Day, the latest numbers out Friday showed monthly job creation was higher than expected — but unemployment rose, too. That gave each candidate political room to see only what he wanted, and to stick with the fundamental economic argument that he thinks will win the White House.
"It's another hammer blow to the struggling middle-class families of America," Romney said of the pace of job growth, assailing Obama's record from a Las Vegas trucking business. At the White House, Obama surrounding himself with some of those families, playing up 29 straight months that private employers have added jobs.
"Those are our neighbors and families finding work," Obama said. "But, let's acknowledge, we've still got too many folks out there who are looking for work."
Fittingly, the two men spoke over each other on television, holding events at the same time.
The economy is stuck, long removed from the days of implosion but not growing enough to reduce unemployment or make people feel better. No signs of help are coming from a gridlocked president and Congress, or from the Federal Reserve, or from U.S. allies with their own problems as the world economy suffers.
That means the economy voters have now may be the one they get when it's time to pick a president.
The bright spot: Employers added 163,000 jobs in July, more than double that of June. Yet the politically important unemployment rate rose to 8.3 percent, a notch above June's 8.2 percent.
Only three such tone-setting jobs reports remain before the election — one in September the day after Obama speaks at the Democratic National Convention, one in October shortly after the two men debate on the economy and one in November a mere four days before the election.
Whatever the monthly ups and downs, the big picture shows that the largest economy in the world has yet to take off: The 151,000 jobs added on average each month this year is almost the same monthly average as last year.
A status quo economy means the campaign arguments and strategies are not changing, either.
Obama and Romney will keep punching it out in largely negative advertising and personal appearances in about eight states expected to determine the outcome. Much of the rest of America will be left to give money, volunteer or watch from the sidelines.
Obama's locked-in message is about asking the nation's richest people to pay higher taxes, extending tax cuts for the middle class and promising long-run economic growth by putting public money into education, energy and research. He has seized on a report that concluded Romney's plan would raise middle-class taxes.
Meanwhile, Romney's aides have long believed only a dramatic uptick in the economy could hurt his chances and force a broad change in messaging.
So one month of stronger-than-expected job growth did nothing to alter Romney's case that "America can do better." Capitalizing on an Obama vulnerability — public disapproval of the president's handling of the economy — Romney portrays himself as the change agent with the business background for the demands of the day.
He is promising to create 12 million jobs over four years, a pace that would demand nearly 90,000 more jobs every month than were created in July. Yet he has offered few specifics to back up that ambitious projection, outlining a broad economic agenda of trade, energy and lower taxes, spending and regulation.
Obama used the new numbers to fuel his own narrative of an American economy headed in the right direction.
"We knew when I started in this job that this was going to take some time," Obama said. "We haven't had to come back from an economic crisis this deep or this painful since the 1930s. But we also knew that if we were persistent, if we kept at it and kept working, that we'd gradually get to where we need to be."
The economy lost 8.7 million jobs in the recession and its aftermath. Since then, it has regained 3.9 million.
The size of the hole, the slow climb out of it, and the broken politics of Washington have left a lot of the country weary. Even in an election driven by the economy, one Associated Press-GfK poll found that 60 percent of people said whoever wins the election will have slim-to-no impact on employment.
Romney and Obama are going after roughly 10 percent of the electorate that remains undecided in the presidential race.
Neither side contends the public is truly engaged in the race yet; August vacations and the Olympics have steered plenty of attention elsewhere. Yet the last month of summer will be busy, with Romney's choice of a vice presidential candidate coming soon and the political conventions falling on either side of Labor Day.
Romney traveled from Las Vegas to Sun Valley, Idaho, for a fundraiser Friday night. He picked up the endorsement of actor Clint Eastwood, who told The Associated Press outside the Sun Valley Resort that he was backing the Republican because "I think the country needs a boost."
Romney is set to campaign in Indiana on Saturday, before spending two days in private at his New Hampshire summer home. He is expected to campaign in Iowa and Ohio in the following days before starting a bus tour targeting Virginia, North Carolina and Florida.
Obama, who celebrates his 51st birthday on Saturday, will spend much of the weekend at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md. He will raise money in Connecticut on Monday before launching into a stretch of campaign travel in Colorado and Iowa, with fundraising in his hometown of Chicago tucked in between.