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Jobless rate lowest since 2001

WASHINGTON — The unemployment rate sank to a five-year low of 4.4 percent and workers’ wages grew solidly last month, flashing a picture of a jobs market on firm footing as voters go to the polls.

Figures released Friday by the Labor Department suggested that employers are coping fairly well with a national economy that has lost a lot of momentum because of the housing slump.

Still, pockets of pain were evident. The struggling auto industry slashed jobs. So did companies involved in home building, as well as furniture makers — casualties of the sour housing market. Retailers continued to pink-slip employees.

The economy added 92,000 new jobs in October. Although that fell short of economists’ expectations for an increase of around 125,000, gains in both August and September turned out to have been much stronger.

For those two months combined, the economy generated 139,000 more jobs than previously estimated, and that eased the sting from October.

So did the drop in the unemployment rate, from 4.6 percent in September. It marked the third month in a row that the rate had declined.

Republicans and Democrats looking for help in Friday’s report — the last snapshot of the employment scene before next week’s elections — clashed about which party would do a better job taking care of the country’s broader economic and fiscal health.

“Tax cuts have led to a strong and growing economy, and this morning we got more proof of that,” President Bush said at a Republican rally in Springfield, Mo.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California fired back: “Bush’s handling of the economy is not good for America’s middle-income families.” Democrats argue the Bush’s tax cuts mainly helped the wealthy, and they blame his trade policies for the country’s bloated trade deficits and the loss of U.S. factory jobs.

How voters view job availability, wage growth and other economic conditions is likely to play a role in the balloting nationwide on Tuesday.

The president’s approval rating on the economy is at 40 percent, according to an AP-Ipsos poll. And those surveyed trusted Democrats more than Republicans to handle the economy.

Workers, many of whom have seen their wages whittled by inflation, saw solid gains last month. Their hourly earnings climbed to $16.91, up 0.4 percent from September. Over the past 12 months, wages have grown by 3.9 percent.

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