If Mitt Romney is to salvage his candidacy during tonight’s debate, he must understand, identify and—for the first time—concretely explain his cure for our country’s biggest malady.

It’s something that Romney should have publicly identified long ago, because it may be President Obama’s biggest weakness -- and, therefore, Romney’s biggest opportunity.

The media and this White House (like its predecessors) focus on the monthly unemployment rate, which is hovering at just over 8 percent.  

What no one really likes to talk about is a more important and telling statistic.  It’s called the labor participation rate, and it’s a more accurate measure of actual unemployment. 

I could just as easily give this problem a simple four-word description:  “IT'S THE JOBS, STUPID!”

The labor participation rate is something typically discussed by economists. While it is felt by most Americans, it is not really fully understood. Tonight, Mitt Romney needs to change that.

Unfulfilled Promises

Off I-85, about an hour south of downtown Atlanta, the carnitas and tongue tacos are served hot for the costumers who line up to beat the lunchtime crowd.  El Taquito is a “hole in the wall” clumsily crafted inside a gas station, where both locals and commuters belly up for authentic Mexican grub.

This isn't Tex-Mex. It's Mex-Mex and served up, no less, in “the sticks,” the nickname given to small towns that dot the criss-crossing interstates along the South in states like Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia.  

Yes, the Confederate flag still flies here, but it now competes with the eye-popping green shades of Mexican banners and signs signaling to all that a significant demographic shift is well underway.

No one knows that better than the owner of El Taquito.  

Jaime Gonzalez started his restaurant three years ago and says his clientele has grown to a mix of 60 percent Latino and 40 percent non-Latino.

His food, by fancy restaurant standards, has remained as cheap as his business is steady.  

But what hasn't remained steady in this region are the jobs. 

"It's not good," says Gonzalez over the full-throated blare of a working kitchen and Spanish television novelas.

“Promete, pero no cumple” translates loosely to “He promises, but he doesn't deliver.”  

That is how Gonzalez sums up President Obama.

Gonzalez, steadfastly undecided on for whom to vote in the coming presidential election, says he's an expert in neither politics nor economics.  Whatever the statistics may be, despite a recent decline in the unemployment rate, Gonzalez is an “on the ground” student of the current business climate and sees something else: “My friends are closing their businesses, and fewer people have jobs.”

The Labor Participation Rate: Worse than the Unemployment Rate

What Gonzalez astutely senses is, in fact, what economists call the labor participation rate, which has slumped to a 31-year low of 63.5 percent under President Obama’s watch.

Where the unemployment rate only measures how many Americans are collecting unemployment benefits, the labor participation rate measures the number of civilian working-age population (Americans between the ages of 16 and 64) who are working.

In other words, how many able-bodied Americans are actually employed?  

As the table below illustrates, the labor participation rate has held steady around 66 percent for decades. But not anymore. It's down. Way down. 

Economists call it a potential crisis.

Here’s what the labor participation rate means: if the discouraged job seekers who show up in the above graph were added to the unemployment rate, the real jobless rate in this country would be at least 10.5 percent.

It would mean there are actually 4 million fewer people in the labor force than in December 2007, primarily due to a lack of jobs rather than the normal aging of America's population.

And if the current trend isn't thwarted, it will be nearly impossible to avert an even more severe economic crisis. 

And that is why Americans are demanding answers. They are not asking for high-level economic policy. They are screaming, “Tell us how you'll create jobs in America, and you’ll have our vote.”

Romney Needs to Tell us How He’ll Deliver

As Jaime Gonzalez hands me my tongue tacos (to the literal disgust of my wife), he tells me again what he thinks of President Obama:  “Promete mucho, pero no cumple”—“Enough with the promises, it's time to deliver.”

It's the message Gov. Romney should deliver tonight, but he needs to go a step further by saying, “and here’s how I'll deliver.”

Mitt Romney must make Jaime Gonzalez and all Americans understand, in the clearest of terms, how he’ll create jobs.  He needs to finally take his Bain experience and turn it into a plus.

Romney’s criticism must be precise rather than vague and his solutions must be concrete rather than general. Only by doing so can he win.

The unemployment issue is a pitch served right over home plate. 

Mitt Romney gets one chance, and tonight, if he swings and misses, it’s lights out.

 

Rick Sanchez is a contributor for Fox News Latino.

 

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