MANCHESTER, N.H. — Most states would look enviously at a 5.3 percent unemployment rate. By New Hampshire's standards, times are still tough.
"Everybody is nervous," said Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market research group based in Concord. "Everybody is not sure if things are getting better or getting worse, and they feel like we need to do better than we are doing now."
That such anxiety permeates even a state where the jobless rate is less than half that of other battlegrounds — like Florida, Nevada and South Carolina — underscores how thoroughly the economy is eclipsing other issues in the presidential campaign.
So far, that's helped former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has made New Hampshire the cornerstone of his bid for the Republican nomination and dominates polls in the state, the site of the party's first primary.
Concern about the economy will be raised at a debate today sponsored by Bloomberg News and the Washington Post at Dartmouth College in Hanover. The debate, featuring Romney and seven other Republican presidential candidates, will be the first of the 2012 campaign to focus solely on the economy.
New Hampshire's August unemployment rate of 5.3 percent was almost 4 points below the national average of 9.1 percent. Only North Dakota, Nebraska and South Dakota had lower rates.
Among the five states now scheduled to start the Republican nominating season, New Hampshire has the lowest jobless rate. Iowa, where the caucuses will begin the process in December or early January, had the eighth-lowest rate in the nation for August, at 6.1 percent.
Republicans are more likely to confront greater economic anxiety in South Carolina, Nevada and Florida, where the August rates were 11.1 percent, 13.4 percent and 10.7 percent.
"We have done fairly well weathering the recession," said Adrienne Rupp, vice president of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire. "We are hearing from businesses that they are seeing more activity and thinking about starting to hire employees."
Still, New Hampshire's unemployment rate has ticked up in recent months, from 4.8 percent in May. Before mid-2008, the state's rate was typically around 3.5 percent.