WASHINGTON Friday's bleak unemployment report boosts Republicans hoping to oust President Barack Obama from the White House next year, but translating a difficult economy into election results will not be easy.
U.S. jobs growth ground to a near halt in June, frustrating hopes the economy would bounce back quickly from a slowdown and underscoring how difficult the issue will be for Obama in his bid for a second term next year.
"This is Obama's greatest vulnerability. It's his losing war, the economy and unemployment," said Julian Zelizer, a professor at Princeton University.
Mitt Romney, a former governor and wealthy businessman, has in particular made job creation the center of his front-running campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Co-founder of private equity firm Bain Capital, Romney tells voters he helped create tens of thousands of jobs by helping launch successful corporations.
Romney has scored some points against Obama on the issue, giving a speech on the economy last week at a shuttered factory that the Democrat visited in 2009 as a potential symbol of economic renewal.
On Friday he issued a statement accusing Obama and his aides of caring too little about joblessness. "With their cavalier attitude about the economy, the White House has turned the audacity of hope into the audacity of indifference," Romney said, referring to the title of one of Obama's books.
"It (the poor jobless report) makes Obama look vulnerable and therefore within the Republican party they get more serious about putting up a serious contender," said Christopher Arterton, a political scientist at George Washington University who has consulted for Democratic candidates.
"Romney has a flavor of being a serious contender and somewhat more moderate," he said.
Other prominent Republican candidates, such as U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann who has leaped to second place in recent polls, are better known for conservatism on social issues such as opposition to abortion or gay marriage rights than for business expertise.
REPUBLICANS NEED THEIR OWN PLAN
And Republicans, while freely criticizing Obama, have been criticized in turn for lacking their own job creation plans, and for pushing for big cuts in government services -- without tax cuts -- during acrimonious budget negotiations.
"Republicans really don't have their alternative -- including Romney -- to what the president has done," Zelizer said.
"Budget cuts are popular, but I don't think they are enough of an answer," he said. "People see jobs going to other countries. I don't see how cutting Social Security is going to solve that problem," he said of the retirement program.
Democrats have seized on some of Romney's campaign gaffes, such as telling unemployed workers in Florida that he was also out of work. Romney's fortune is estimated at $250 million.
They also have hammered Romney for what they say is "flip-flopping" on his view of the economy. For instance he gave apparently contradictory statements in recent days on whether Obama's policies made the U.S. recession worse.
"Candidate qualities do play a role," said Richard Eichenberg, a political scientist at Tufts University which is near Boston, noting the former Massachusetts governor's difficulties connecting with voters.
Romney's woodenness on the campaign trail and reputation for changing his position on issues hurt his unsuccessful bid for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
Democrats will also blast Romney's business record, slamming Bain Capital as a firm that made money for investors by slashing jobs or reducing pay and benefits at companies in which it invested.
"The Democrats will challenge Romney's credentials as an economic steward, primarily because of his experience as a venture capitalist," Eichenberg said.
But most experts say it will take an economic rebound for Obama's 2012 prospects to brighten significantly, and economists said Friday's report left them little hope for an upturn.
"After kind of moving in the right direction for quite some time, we are no longer moving in the right direction," said Heather Boushey, an economist at the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the White House.
"I cannot find anything in today's report that gives me optimism," she said.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Vicki Allen)