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This is why the most closely watched state-by-state political charts in both the Obama and Romney campaign headquarters are the unemployment rates.

The Obama administration predicted not long after it took office in 2009 that unemployment would be brought down to less than 8 percent. But last month’s state-by-state numbers showed 20 states with effectively 8 percent unemployment or higher.

No president since the Great Depression has won re-election with the national unemployment rate at that level.

What should be clear right now at Mr. Obama’s campaign headquarters and in the West Wing is that they are not going to win this election on his handling of the economy. So the president is playing a zero-sum game by picking issues that appeal to special-interest groups in the hopes of stitching together enough electoral votes to squeak out a narrow victory.

Thus, he talks about lowering interest rates on student loans or reaches out to the Hispanic voter bloc with a politically motivated immigration rules change to keep younger Hispanics, who were brought here by illegal migrant parents, from being deported.

It may help him on the margins, but unemployment may be the bigger issue for many jobless Hispanics. Low voter turnout among this voting bloc may be Mr. Obama’s far bigger problem.

“The U.S. economy flirts with recession,” University of Maryland business economist Peter Morici writes this week.

Jobless claims are climbing, fewer jobs are being created, worker productivity is down, auto sales are off their first-quarter high, and wages are flat, manufacturing orders are down, and Europe’s economy is riddled with debt and skyrocketing unemployment that threatens to ricochet through our economy.

Meantime, Mr. Obama is trying to persuade a recession-weary electorate that “the private sector is doing fine” when its workforce shrank by nearly 4 percent in the last four years and the federal workforce is still growing at a healthy rate.

There is a growing sense across the country that voters are looking for answers to how we can pull ourselves out of this economic mess, and all they are hearing from the president are excuses.

They want a plan to grow our economy, but they’re coming to the conclusion that raising taxes on investors, employers and risk-takers - and borrowing more spending money - are not the answers.

How this all turns out in the end can be predicted by the state unemployment rates. Watch them closely.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.