WASHINGTON — Retailers joined with textile and apparel manufacturers to slash more workers from their payrolls in September, even as the economy added 96,000 jobs in a weaker-than-expected employment report, the Labor Department said Friday.

The news provided ammunition for both sides at the presidential debate Friday night, as President George W. Bush and Democratic rival Sen. John Kerry attempted to spin the latest numbers to their advantage.

The number of jobs at general merchandise stores fell 10,700 in September to 2.809 million, while employment fell 6,100 to 1.349 million at apparel and accessories stores and dropped 8,600 to 1.59 million at department stores.

Textile and apparel manufacturers cut a combined 2,300 from payrolls in September. Total employment in the two sectors in September was 695,800, compared with 723,700 in September 2003, reflecting further attrition blamed on low-cost imports, primarily from China.

Textile mill employment fell by 700 last month and stood at 234,100, a decline of 16,100 jobs against a year ago, while textile mill product employment inched up by 100 to 178,900 last month and was up by 5,200 compared with a year ago. Apparel factories slashed 1,600 jobs from payrolls to employ 282,200 last month, bringing the sector’s 12-month loss to 17,000.

Since Bush took office in January 2001, employment in the textile industry has plunged by 165,000, while employment in the apparel industry declined by 186,000 in the same period. Both sectors experienced long-term losses in the decade or so prior to that, as imports came to dominate the market.

Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, which is part of an industry group seeking to have the government impose safeguard quotas limiting Chinese imports, said failure to do so “will make this 2,300 pale in comparison to the hemorrhage of jobs next year.”

The September employment statistics are the last before the presidential election and were released the morning before the second debate between the candidates at Washington University in St. Louis. The nation added 96,000 jobs in September — below the 150,000 economists expected in the month — and failed to keep pace with the increase in the adult population. The unemployment rate remained unchanged last month at 5.4 percent.

This story first appeared in the October 11, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“The President has presided over an economy where we’ve lost 1.6 million jobs — the first President in 72 years to lose jobs,” Kerry said during the debate. “I have a plan to put people back to work.”

Kerry said he would give incentives, such as tax breaks, to U.S. companies that keep their jobs here and “close tax loopholes” that encourage companies to shift production overseas.

Bush first emphasized the rising cost of health care, which often prevents smaller businesses from hiring new employees, and made a push for medical liability reform. He then said “the best way to keep jobs in America is to, number one, have an energy plan.” The President noted a couple of times that 1.9 million jobs have been created in the past 13 months but failed to touch on the fact that there is still a net loss of jobs since he took office.