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Feds issue two dreary economic reports, in sign economy will top voter concerns

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May 30, 2012: Mi-Ran Park-Wong, of Macy's, speaks to a job applicant during a career expo sponsored by Jobs Direct USA in Orlando, Fla. (AP)

The U.S. government issued two downbeat economic reports Thursday, numbers that are sure to fuel the presidential campaign rhetoric as they signal jobs and the economy will remain top voter concerns going into the election. 

The Commerce Department reported the economy grew at an annual rate of 1.9 percent in the first quarter of 2012, slower than first estimated.

The Labor Department reported the number of Americans seeking jobless benefits rose last week to a five-week high, evidence that the job market remains sluggish.

The figures come in advance of the labor report that routinely turns into a political football -- the monthly jobs report, set for release on Friday. Economists expect 158,000 jobs were created in May, slightly better than the past two months but far below the pace this past winter. They also expect no change in the unemployment rate.

The numbers continue to hang over the candidates and require each to continue to make a case for how he can improve the economy.

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has touted his experience in corporate finance. President Obama has said he helped stabilize and improve the downward-spiraling economy he inherited and needs more time to complete the task.

“As with all of the numbers we've seen every month, they all tell the same story, that President Obama promised for the past three years to turn around the economy but has failed,” said Kirsten Kukowski, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman. “While things get slightly better, they are nowhere near where they need to be.”

The Democratic National Committee did not respond to a request for comment. The Obama campaign, though, has started to aggressively criticize Romney's record in the private sector during his time as Bain Capital. The campaign is also opening up a new front, going after his days as Massachusetts governor. 

A Fox poll this month showed voter think the economy is improving under Obama.

The number saying the economy is in "poor" condition has dropped 14 percentage points from a year ago.  
On the question of what is the "best thing" Obama has done to help the economy? Fifteen percent responded he slowed or stopped job loss and the recession.  But the most common response was Obama did "nothing" to help (43 percent).

On the question of who would do a better job creating new jobs, 43 percent said Romney, compared to 41 percent for Obama.

The Commerce Department originally said estimated growth from January-March was 2.2 percent. The agency then revised the number, saying the change was largely because consumers spent less than estimated, business restocked more slowly and the U.S. trade deficit grew sharply.

Still, analysts think the economy will grow at a slightly faster rate this spring. They estimate growth at an annual rate of 2 percent to 2.5 percent in the April-June quarter. Many expect the economy will maintain that pace for all of 2012, an improvement from last year's 1.7 percent growth.

However, growth of 2.5 percent is typically enough just to keep pace with population changes. Most economists say it takes almost twice as much growth to lower the unemployment rate by 1 percentage point over a year.

The unemployment rate has fallen a full percentage point since August -- from 9.1 percent to 8.1 percent last month. Part of the reason for the drop is that employers added 1.5 million jobs during that time. But it has also declined because some people have grown discouraged and given up looking for work. The government only counts people as unemployed if they are actively looking for a job.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.