- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 4, 2004

Twelve of the 17 battleground states that likely will decide the outcome of the 2004 presidential campaign have unemployment rates below, in some cases well below, the national average, which could substantially improve President Bush’s chances in a recovering, job-producing economy.

Democrats, led by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, have been relentlessly pounding Mr. Bush for the economy’s nearly 6 percent unemployment rate and for presiding over “a jobless recovery.” However, an examination of the battleground states shows that a surprisingly large number of them had relatively tame jobless rates within the 4 percent to 5 percent range — numbers that most economists define as full employment.

The states with unemployment rates in the 4 percent range include: Florida, 4.6 percent; Iowa, 4.1 percent; Minnesota, 4.7 percent; Nevada, 4.4 percent; and New Hampshire, 4.2 percent.

States within the 5 percent range include: Arizona, 5.3 percent; Arkansas, 5.5 percent; Maine, 5 percent; Missouri, 5.1 percent; New Mexico, 5.6 percent; Ohio, 5.9 percent; Pennsylvania, 5.1 percent; West Virginia, 5.4 percent; and Wisconsin, 5.2 percent.

Only three big battleground states exceeded the current 5.7 percent national average: Michigan, 6.6 percent; Oregon, 7.1 percent; and Washington 6.1 percent.

Bush campaign strategists believe their chances of carrying battleground states with the lowest unemployment rate were good to begin with, but now they say their chances have measurably improved as a result of the government’s strong nationwide jobs report Friday that showed more than 300,000 new jobs were created in March.

Mr. Bush touted the news during his weekly radio address yesterday.

“This week, we received powerful confirmation that America’s economy is growing stronger,” he said. “People are finding jobs, and the nation’s future is bright. America’s families and workers have reason to be optimistic.”

Bush advisers said the report will do nothing but help the president in these key states.

“This report dramatically changes our prospects in many of these battleground contests,” said a Bush adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

However, Mr. Kerry said the president is misusing the information and that the right jobs aren’t being created.

“We now hear the administration claiming success,” Mr. Kerry said. “There is not a single month of this administration that has seen the creation of a single manufacturing job.”

More notably, Kerry campaign spokesman David Wade, whose most frequently repeated statistic is the 2.5 million jobs that have been lost in the past three years, ridiculed Mr. Bush and his party for touting the 308,000-new-jobs statistic put out by the Labor Department Friday.

“George Bush wants to measure this economy in statistics, but Americans measure his presidency in what’s happening in their lives,” Mr. Wade said. “Their attack ads don’t erase the fact that when Missouri workers find jobs, they pay less and come with fewer benefits.”

Not surprisingly, Democrats in the battleground states rejected any notion that Mr. Kerry’s candidacy has been hurt by the turnaround in the employment picture, though some said that the race had tightened up, a change that they attributed to the barrage of TV ads the Bush campaign has been running against the Massachusetts liberal.

“You still have a ton of people out of work,” New Hampshire Democratic Chairman Kathleen Sullivan said. “It’s a little early to predict where this [trend with the jobs numbers] is going in six months.”

Mrs. Sullivan didn’t dispute that more jobs are being created, but she said that “these jobs are paying less.”

“No manufacturing jobs are being created, so the jobs must be on the lower end of the pay scale.

“I’m happy when people have jobs, but the problem is there are not enough jobs being created, and people are feeling that they have to work harder just to keep up. They’re paying more for college costs, heath care and property taxes,” she said.

Mr. Bush carried New Hampshire in 2000, and last week the American Research Group poll showed that he was leading Mr. Kerry there 48 percent to 43 percent, with 2 percent for Ralph Nader and 6 percent undecided. “Other numbers have it neck and neck,” Mrs. Sullivan said.

Perhaps no other battleground state is more closely watched than Pennsylvania, where 21 electoral votes are at stake. Al Gore narrowly won it in 2000, but Mr. Bush now appears to be surprisingly competitive in the state, which, at 5.1 percent, had one of the lowest jobless rates in the Northeast.

Pennsylvania Democratic Chairman T. J. Rooney acknowledged that Mr. Bush leads in the state, 46 percent to 40 percent, but said, “it is more a reflection of the Bush attack ads than anything else. That’s caused some erosion.”

Still, Mr. Rooney acknowledged that “you are right, the relative unemployment numbers aren’t so bad,” though he quickly added that the state has lost 154,000 manufacturing jobs under Mr. Bush and job losses are worse in the southwestern part of the state.

Wisconsin Democratic Chairman Linda Honold similarly said that, at first blush, her state’s 5.2 percent “unemployment [rate] doesn’t look bad,” but added that “there are still a lot of people underemployed here. A lot of them were making $60,000 two years ago. Now they are making $25,000.

“Looking only at unemployment is not a fair assumption. Enrollment at our technical colleges has skyrocketed because they can’t get jobs in their previous occupation and none of them are now counted as unemployed because they’re in school and not looking for work,” she said.

“Yes, [the race] is pretty tight here, but if I were George Bush and my opponent was leading me, I’d be concerned about that,” she said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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