Unemployment rates (search) increased in February in nine of 17 battleground states that could decide the presidential election in November.

Jobless rates fell in six of the most contested states and held steady in two others, according to figures released Wednesday by the Labor Department (search).

Polls consistently show that jobs and the economy are the most important issues to voters, and that a majority think Democrat John Kerry is better suited to improve the situation than President Bush. The economy is growing, but hiring is near a standstill.

Overall, unemployment rates were lower in 24 states and Washington, D.C., in February, higher in 19 states and unchanged in seven, the report said. Businesses cut their payrolls in 27 states and increased hiring in 20 states and Washington, D.C. Hiring essentially was unchanged in three states.

The loss of some 400,000 jobs to other countries has become a hot political issue. It also is taking a toll on confidence in the economy, said Wells Fargo's chief economist, Sung Won Sohn.

"It's not a huge number, but psychologically, its been a much bigger issue," he said. "The fear of losing jobs has been very worrisome to people in the labor force."

The economy has shed 2.2 million jobs since Bush took office in January 2001. He sought to boost confidence in his economic policies this week, focusing on jobs on Tuesday in Wisconsin and planning a West Virginia trip for Friday.

"You ask any business leaders here, they can tell you what it's like to try to manage during the recession," Bush said in Wisconsin. "There's uncertainty, the workers are getting anxious, sometimes you have to lay some people off. Recession is tough for a country to deal with."

Missouri, a state Bush won in 2000, was one of nine battleground states where the jobless rate rose in February. The rate jumped to 5.1 percent from 4.7 percent and businesses cut 19,200 jobs from their payrolls. The nation's jobless rate is 5.6 percent.

"It's going to be interesting to see who gets blamed - the president or the governor," said David Webber, associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

Jobs and the economy are top concerns, but Missourians don't appear to fault Bush, Webber said. Instead, Democratic Gov. Bob Holden (search), presiding over a state budget shortfall, has been wearing the bulls eye. That could change, Webber said.

"I think jobs are going to be much more of an issue than we thought two months ago," he said. "Iraq has become too complex for most people, and everybody understands jobs."

In Arizona, another battleground state that Bush won in 2000, the jobless rate ticked up to 5.3 percent from 5.2 percent in January.

Arizona is one of the fastest-growing states, companies are relocating there and hiring, said Fred Solop, political science professor and pollster at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. The economy ranks first among residents in surveys, but their concerns are related to the kinds of jobs available and wages that lag behind rising living costs, he said.

"It's about people trying to find jobs that are equivalent to their education and skill level," Solop said.

So far, Bush doesn't appear vulnerable on the economy in Arizona.

"But there is a long time between now and the election, and the politics of the state are in flux with many new people coming in," Solop said.

Many analysts believe things will improve nationally.

"That's still the likely scenario," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Economy.com. But the pace of job creation will be slow - even sluggish - for the rest of the year, he said.

The nation's unemployment rate has dropped to 5.6 percent from a high of 6.3 percent last summer. The rate for March will be released Friday by the Labor Department.

States that lost the most jobs in February were Missouri, down 19,200; Georgia, down 11,700; Ohio, down 10,900 and Indiana, down 9,600.

States that had the largest hiring gains were Florida, up 16,100; Tennessee, up 13,300, North Carolina, up 11,900; Texas, up 9,600, California, up 8,800, and Wisconsin, up 8,700.

Among the battleground states, rates rose in February in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Rates declined in Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington. Rates were unchanged in Iowa and Michigan.