By John S. McClenahen U.S. consumers seem to be more confident as 2004 begins than they were as 2003 ended. The Consumer Confidence Index compiled by the Conference Board, a New York-based business research group, rose to 96.8 (1985=100) this month after falling to 91.7 in December. "Consumer confidence is now at its highest level since July 2002, when the index registered 97.4," notes Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board's Consumer Research Center. "Growing optimism about the overall health of the [U.S.] economy continues to bolster consumers' short-term outlook." However, the data also show that consumers remain worried about getting and keeping jobs. For example, the percentage of consumers claiming that jobs are plentiful fell to 12.4% from 12.6% in December. " . . . Consumers' assessment of current conditions, which strongly hinges on improvements in the labor market, remains both weak and volatile," states Franco.