rick_scott_12.jpgcharlie_crist_12.jpgTALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Florida's unemployment rate remained flat for a third straight month, but that didn't stop Gov. Rick Scott and Republicans from using the latest round of economic news as a way to criticize potential opponent Charlie Crist.

The back-and-forth over the routine release of jobs numbers Friday was yet another signal that the GOP wants next year's election to focus squarely on the economy and how it has fared since Scott succeeded Crist.

State officials announced that the state's jobless rate was at 7.1 percent and that some 665,000 people in the state were out of work. The rate remains lower than the national average of 7.4 percent and it is at its lowest rate since September 2008.

Scott didn't focus on the unemployment rate remaining relatively steady. Instead, during a stop at a Jacksonville manufacturing plant, he touted a separate set of numbers that showed that the state added thousands of jobs last month.

"I am proud to say that Florida families are getting back to work and that Florida has the best climate for business,'' Scott said in statement.

He proclaimed that with the latest job creation numbers he was now more than halfway to his 2010 campaign promise of creating 700,000 jobs in seven years.

Scott's 7-7-7 plan called for deep cuts in spending and large tax cuts as part of a strategy to stimulate the economy. While spending did drop initially, the size of the state budget increased this year. GOP legislators have also rejected some of the larger tax cuts sought by Scott.

Scott on Friday didn't mention Crist by name, but noted that the state's unemployment rate went up in "the four years before I took office.'' The Republican Party of Florida, however, did hit Crist, who switched to the Democratic Party last year and is considered a likely challenger in 2014.

The party released a Web video highlighting the rising unemployment rate during Crist's time in office and even included a clip of the former governor saying in 2011 that Scott was "laser focused'' on jobs.

Democrats responded forcefully, maintaining that the gradual recovery in the state should be seen as vindication of the job that President Barack Obama is doing.

"Rick Scott's claim that he is responsible for Florida's slowly growing economy is a cheap re-election gimmick,'' said Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant. "The truth is that Florida's slow recovery is part of a national economic turnaround under President Obama.''

Back during his State of the State speech in March Scott contended he didn't care who got credit

"Maybe I am not a politician but I think this is a great debate to have,'' he said at the time. "It celebrates the fact that our economy is once again creating jobs.''

Scott's contention that he is more than halfway to his goal is also likely to draw fire.

He took credit on Friday for the creation of 369,100 "private sector'' jobs since December 2010. But during that same time period there has been a loss of government jobs due to state and local budget cuts bringing the overall growth to just under 337,000 jobs.

"The public sector has been more of a drag on job growth,'' said University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith.

And during his campaign for governor Scott was asked repeatedly about economic projections that showed Florida would add a million jobs due to normal growth over seven years without his 7-7-7 plan.

In interviews and during a campaign debate he said that his 700,000 jobs would be in addition to "normal growth'' or "on top of'' of the initial projections.

Democrats highlighted that statement again contending Scott saying that he has "fallen so far short of his promises'' and has reached barely 20 percent of his goal.