By Andrew Beatty

Washington - With Mitt Romney lagging in the polls and reeling from a blunder-filled foreign trip, the focus of the White House race will return to his strong suit Friday when the latest US jobs report is unveiled.

The Labor Department is expected to report unemployment was stuck above eight percent for the 42nd straight month in July, offering Romney a much-needed boost for his campaign with fewer than 100 days to go until the election.

Wall Street analysts predict unemployment remained at 8.2

percent, and the economy created 100,000 jobs during July, not nearly enough to put America's 12.7 million unemployed back to work in short order.

“The unrelenting crisis in Europe and growing uncertainty about US fiscal policy continue to weigh on business plans for hiring,” said Lewis Alexander of Nomura, predicting another tepid report.

After a month that has seen Romney criticized for not releasing more of his tax returns, for diplomatic missteps in Britain, Israel and Poland, and for his dealings at Bain Capital, the data cannot be published quickly enough.

President Barack Obama has opened up a two-point lead in national tracking polls and pulled away in key swing states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, leaving Romney with plenty to do if the election is not to slip through his hands.

The Romney campaign tried to pivot back to the economy Wednesday, with possible running mate Rob Portman hammering home Romney's business acumen.

“Romney knows from his private sector experience what President Obama has failed to learn in the almost four years he's had to turn around the economy,” Portman said.

“He knows that to return to prosperity, we must create a better climate for job growth by embracing the policies of free enterprise that got us there in the first place.”

Romney has sketched his plan for boosting job growth through budget cuts, deregulation, scrapping Obama's signature health care law and lowering taxes.

Drilling down on that message may offer the Republican his clearest path to victory.

Voters have continuously ranked joblessness as the biggest problem facing the United States, and have rated Romney's economic credentials as stronger than those of his Democratic rival.

According to Gallup, 50 percent of voters say Romney would be better at creating jobs, while 44 percent backed Obama.

“Obama and Romney are no doubt aware of the high ranking Americans give to jobs as a priority for the next president, and both have spent a great deal of time talking about jobs on the campaign trail this year,” said Gallup's Frank Newport.

“However, neither has a clear advantage Ä and with over a third of Americans saying they don't understand each candidate's plans, each can in theory do more to make his economic case.”

Obama meanwhile will hope that data released Wednesday from payrolls firm ADP is a harbinger of a stronger-than expected jobs report.

ADP said that private-sector employment rose by 163,000 in July, with gains across all sizes of businesses and in both the goods-producing and service-providing sectors.

Obama will also hope that Romney's business resume is losing some of its sheen.

According to a Quinnipiac/New York Times/CBS swing state poll, there were signs that the Obama campaign's advertising blitz, portraying Romney's career at Bain Capital as that of a heartless corporate raider who got rich by destroying middle class jobs, may be working.

Forty-eight percent of those asked in Florida, 50 percent in Ohio and 51 percent in Pennsylvania said Romney's business experience was too focused on profits rather than equipping him to get the economy going again. - Sapa-AFP