A large drop in the nation's jobless rate gave President Obama an unexpected boost Friday in his increasingly competitive contest with Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

The decline to 7.8 percent brought the unemployment rate below 8 percent for the first time since the first full month of Obama's presidency and cheered the president's partisans. But it's unlikely to change voters' overall sense of how the country is doing economically.

Still, the announcement did have one big benefit for Obama: shifting attention away from his lackluster performance in the first presidential debate less than 36 hours earlier. Combining both events -- the debate and the jobs report -- strategists in both parties expect to see the race tighten but also say the Democratic incumbent remains the front-runner. Obama has more options to reach the required 270 electoral votes, and Romney still faces a more difficult path.

'Not out of reach'

For Romney, "it's not as steep of an uphill fight going forward. It's still uphill," said Dan Schnur, a former Republican campaign consultant who directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

For months, Obama has benefited from a slowly recovering economy. The stock market is up and housing prices are rising. Those changes have contributed to increasing confidence about the economy and the general state of the country, according to voter polls and other measures of consumer confidence.

Obama greeted the economic news by boasting that joblessness had "fallen to its lowest level since [he] took office."

But Romney dismissed the sluggish pace of improvement.

Romney's partisans have been greatly encouraged by his debate performance, but the Republican faces the challenge of changing the minds of voters at a stage of the campaign when the vast majority already have their preferences set.

Ohio, in particular, remains an obstacle. Romney trails by a significant margin there, though the campaigns disagree on exactly how much.

"Obama's definitely ahead, [but] Ohio is not out of reach for Romney," said John Green, who directs the University of Akron's Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. He added that it was "entirely possible" that the latest news on jobs could cancel out some or all of Romney's debate boost, "leaving the race where it has been."

Without Ohio, Romney would probably need all of the remaining tossup states in order to win. Pre-debate polls showed him gaining in Virginia and Florida, key battlegrounds where he is spending the first five days after Wednesday's debate. He also would have to carry the swing states of Nevada, Colorado, North Carolina and Iowa (creating an unlikely 269-269 electoral-vote tie, which Romney would be favored to win in the House).

Girding for poll shifts

Given Obama's control over such electoral bounties as California and New York, the president starts off with a higher number of guaranteed votes. He would need only Ohio and any one of those other six tossup states to win.

Democrats are girding for poll shifts in coming days that will show the race tied nationally or Romney ahead by a point or two, though a truer test of where the race stands will be the next round of surveys in the battleground states.

Other incumbents have recovered after blowing the first debate of their re-election campaigns, and Obama's supporters are watching for a rebound in the second debate, on Oct. 16. Democratic strategist Bill Carrick said, "I don't know where we are if he has another bad debate."

Romney's strong showing in the debate could help him accomplish what even his own advisers said he had failed to do earlier: close the sale with voters who don't want to give Obama another term. But with relatively few voters truly undecided, Romney also has to convert Obama supporters, a much tougher task.