By John S. McClenahen Unemployment, particularly in manufacturing, is already a serious economic issue in the U.S. And, as the 2004 presidential election campaign becomes more focused, it promises to become a major political issue as well. The manufacturing sector of the U.S. economy lost 36,000 jobs last month, says the U.S. Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Manufacturing has shed 2.5 million jobs since April 1998, its most recent employment peak. Since last July, factory losses have averaged about 50,000 per month. "In March the losses were again widespread," says Kathleen P. Utgoff, the commissioner of BLS. "In fact, there were no significant employment gains in any of the component manufacturing industries," she notes. Makers of industrial machinery laid off 8,000 more workers in March. Manufacturers of electronic and electrical equipment let 4,000 more people go. And producers of aircraft dismissed 2,000 additional workers. "Employment in durable goods manufacturing . . . dropped in March by 29,000, reflecting increased anxiety that is continuing to dampen business investment demand," notes David Huether, chief economist at the National Association of Manufacturers, Washington, D.C. "If people aren't buying durable goods from retailers, industry doesn't make them." Overall, the U.S. economy shed 108,000 jobs last month, far more than the 35,000 that economists generally expected. The unemployment rate, which is calculated from a different set of data, remained at 5.8%. However, the bottom line remains the same: The U.S. economy had a weaker than expected first quarter this year.