United Auto Workers shop steward Dave Doolittle stepped to the podium on Capitol Hill yesterday before a tableau of union members with placards proclaiming, "Stop Exporting American Jobs." He spoke haltingly of Electrolux AG's decision to shut down its Greenville, Mich., refrigerator plant and head to Mexico.

"The people are all scared," he told a suddenly hushed rally, organized hastily by Senate Democrats to highlight jobs moving overseas. "It's like a stomach ache that will not go away."

For Greenville, the loss will be staggering: 2,700 jobs in a town of 8,000. Those numbers contrast harshly with President Bush's effort in California on Thursday to talk up the economy. To Doolittle's 2,700 jobs lost, Bush had the two or three that Bakersfield chassis-maker Les DenHerder said he might add, thanks to the president's tax cuts.

"When he says he's going to hire two more, that's really good news," Bush said.

Democrats have made it clear that the stagnant labor market in general -- and the offshoring of jobs in particular -- will be a central focus of the 2004 campaign season. The Bureau of Labor Statistics yesterday effectively gave them another month to hammer away, with a February jobs report that showed only 21,000 new jobs were added in a month when 392,000 job seekers gave up and left the labor market.

Some economists suspect that the outsourcing of jobs overseas may be playing a part in the job market's stagnation, helping companies increase profitability and productivity while keeping hiring and wages depressed. With an economic recovery nearly three years old, the economy should be producing 200,000 to 300,000 jobs a month, said Sung Won Sohn, chief economist of Wells Fargo & Co.

"Obviously, the relationship between economic growth and employment has broken down," Sohn said in his weekly commentary.

Most economists still believe innovation and growth will eventually replace jobs moving abroad with new ones that will be require higher skills and pay more money. But even the most optimistic economist concedes there will be a painful transition period, especially for the manufacturing sector. For now, just mentioning long-run optimism may be politically perilous.

"Whenever someone tells you the market will take care of things sooner or later, the one thing you know is they're talking about someone else's job," said Gene Sperling, a director of President Bill Clinton's National Economic Council, now advising Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.

And for Bush, the transition period happens to be overlapping a re-election campaign.

"This outsourcing stuff is huge," said Republican pollster Frank Luntz, "and it's upsetting everybody."

The legislative tide on the jobs issue may already have turned toward the Democrats. The Senate this week took up legislation to replace export subsidies ruled illegal by the World Trade Organization with tax breaks for business, especially for domestic manufacturers. The bill has become a difficult testing ground for Republicans against a Democratic onslaught.

On Thursday night, the Senate overwhelmingly passed an amendment by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) to prohibit federal contractors from outsourcing government work overseas. The amendment passed 70-26, with 25 Republicans voting yes, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

On tap when the Senate takes up the bill again are amendments to limit corporate tax deferrals on overseas profits, curtail domestic tax deductions for companies that "offshore" jobs, eliminate the deductibility of interest taken on loans used to move plants abroad, and require three months' advanced notification of workers and the government before jobs are moved offshore. Many of those amendments have become central planks in Kerry's campaign.

House legislation to repeal the same export subsidies has been stymied not only by Democrats but also by a core group of Republicans who say the bill offers too many tax breaks to multinational corporations.

Politically, Democrats have made it clear they will try to make Bush pay for any perceived misstep on the jobs issue. Four weeks after Bush's top economist, N. Gregory Mankiw, said outsourcing "is probably a plus for the economy in the long run," Democrats are still charging that the administration supports moving jobs overseas. At yesterday's Democratic rally, senators raised a passage in Bush's annual Economic Report of the President that asked whether fast-food burger flippers should be classified as manufacturers.

Then Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) brought up Bush's praise of those two new jobs in Bakersfield: "We've lost 3 million jobs since President Bush came to office. There's not enough gas in the world for President Bush to fly around Air Force I getting those back two jobs at a time."

Even Republicans have become critical of the White House's response. Dave Carney, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire, noted that Bush is quick to mention his "six-point plan" to boost the economy. But he neglects explaining how those six points -- litigation limits, his energy plan, health insurance tax credits, regulatory relief, free trade and permanent tax cuts -- will create jobs.

"The president has work to do, no doubt about it," Carney said.

But Luntz predicted that the Democrats would overplay their hand and come across as gleeful over U.S. job losses. The job market still has time to turn positive before November, said Republican strategist Whit Ayres.

Besides, he added, "the Democrats are playing with fire here because at some point they are going to be forced to say what they're going to do differently, and a tax credit here, a tariff there is unlikely to provide compelling rationale for their cause. . . . Feeling your pain is not exactly John Kerry's strong point."

Sharon Pritchard of Baltimore, left, a 29-year employee of Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore before it went out of business, came to the Capitol to protest outsourcing of American jobs overseas.