ORLANDO, Fla. -

Unemployment rates fell or held steady last month in nine key swing states at the center of this year's presidential election.

Rates dropped in Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada and North Carolina. They were unchanged in New Hampshire and Virginia.

The declines could help President Barack Obama at a critical time. With just 18 days until Election Day, polls show GOP challenger Mitt Romney gaining momentum with voters.

Overall, the Labor Department says rates fell in 41 states last month, rose in six and were unchanged in three. The national unemployment rate dropped in September to 7.8 percent, the lowest level since Obama's first month in office.

Still, many key states are facing high unemployment. The rate was 11.8 percent in Nevada and 9.6 percent in North Carolina.

Florida’s private sector created 3,500 new jobs last month pushing the unemployment number to 8.7 percent for September.

New state data released Friday shows the September 2012 rate was 1.7 percentage points lower than the year-ago rate of 10.4 percent. 

According to the Department of Economic Opportunity, the state’s unemployment rate has dropped “2.4 percentage points and 156,800 private sector jobs have been created.”

The DEO reports  Florida also saw “a decrease in the size of government with a decline of 2,700 total jobs over the month.”

Governor Rick Scott says the news is encouraging.

"These numbers today tell us two things – we still have more work to do to grow our economy, and we are heading in the right direction,” Scott said.

According to the DEO, Florida has experienced positive annual job growth for 26 consecutive months. A recent projection by economists with the Florida Economic Estimating Conference points to more than 900,000 new jobs by 2018.

The DEO report also found that “over-the-year” job postings are up almost 9 percent compared to September 2011.”