U.S. Job Growth Seen as Uneven in Latest Measure Before Election

Times Staff Writer

The number of payroll jobs increased in 33 states last month, including most of the presidential campaign battlegrounds, the Labor Department said today in its last employment scorecard before the Nov. 2 elections.

Yet the picture in the swing states was not altogether sunny. Hurricane-whipped Florida posted a loss of 9,500 payroll positions in September, and Midwestern neighbors Wisconsin and Minnesota shed 7,000 and 2,200 jobs.

The unemployment rate, which is measured by a different survey from the payroll job count, improved in 23 states last month and worsened in 22. Virtually all the swing states registered improvements or no change for the month.

The state-by-state tallies reflected the national pattern of gradual gains in most job markets, but not the kind of robust growth President Bush had hoped for during the home stretch of his reelection campaign against Democratic nominee John F. Kerry.

"The industrial Midwest continues to struggle, and some of the key southern swing states continue to do well," said chief economist Mark Zandi of Economy.com, a data analysis firm. "The job market gives neither candidate a particular advantage. I think it's pretty much of a draw."

Although U.S. employers have been adding workers for the past year, job growth has slowed in recent months, from a rate of 209,000 jobs a month in the spring to 103,000 in the third quarter. Last year the White House predicted that Bush's tax cuts would lead to job growth of more than 300,000 a month.

The recent rate has not been enough to keep up with population growth or cause a significant reduction in the unemployment rate, currently 5.4%. But analysts said it might be sufficient to keep other issues, such as the war in Iraq and national security, foremost in voters' minds next month.

"Most voters think the job market is just mediocre," said Greg Valliere, chief strategist with the nonpartisan Schwab Washington Research Group. "It's not as bad as Kerry says, but it's not as good as Bush says. It's somewhere in the middle."

Still, it appears virtually certain that Bush will become the first president since the Depression to end his term with a net loss in payroll employment, a point trumpeted today by Kerry campaign officials.

"Bush can no longer rely on his litany of excuses for why his tax policies have failed to produce the benefits he promised," Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said in a statement. "He has zero credibility."

Nationwide, the biggest month-to-month job gains last month were reported in Kansas, up 12,400; New Jersey, 12,000; Missouri, 10,400; Nevada, 6,700 and Texas, 6,500.

In addition to Florida, Wisconsin and Minnesota, big losses were posted in Michigan, down 14,800; Louisiana, 6,300, and Alabama and North Carolina, 5,600 each.

Ohio, a key swing state where Bush and Kerry appear to be neck and neck, added 5,500 jobs last month. But it had lost payroll positions in previous months, and its job count remains 17,900 below the level of a year ago.

Pennsylvania, which has been leaning toward Kerry but remains closely contested, added 4,600 jobs in September, increasing its 12-month gains to 47,600.

Some of the more sizable gains and losses were registered in states where the two campaigns have focused their energies in recent days. Bush made appearances today in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. Kerry spoke in Wisconsin.

"In the last month … the state of Ohio added 5,500 new jobs," Bush told supporters in Canton. "Your unemployment rate dropped from 6.3% to 6%. We're moving forward." He cited comparable figures during an earlier stop in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Although Minnesota's job count dipped last month, Vice President Dick Cheney reminded supporters during an appearance in Rosemount that "almost 28,000 jobs have been added since a year ago last summer" in the state.

Kerry, in a speech at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, cited an even longer-term statistic: "When you add up the numbers, this state hasn't gained a single job in the last four years," he said. "Not exactly what I'd call an economic recovery."

Analysts said month-to-month changes in the payroll job count tend to be less significant than voters' sense of employment conditions over longer periods of time.

Despite last month's weather-related losses, Florida has been one of the nation's strongest job markets, adding 125,500 positions over the past year. Similarly, Wisconsin has created 52,500 jobs and Minnesota 17,600 since September, 2003, so last month's losses seem more like aberrations than harbingers of hard times.

"If this were the only report that had been issued on jobs in the past year, it might be different," said G. Donald Ferree Jr., director of the University of Wisconsin's Badger Poll. "But I would be surprised if this made a large difference by itself."

Until September, Ferree noted, "the figures have been looking pretty good" in Wisconsin.

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