NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Stocks finished higher Tuesday, helped by gains in telecom and oil and gas stocks, as the market shrugged off weak economic data and global concerns to focus on March jobs data due later this week.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 81 points, or 0.7%, at 12,279. The S&P 500 climbed 9 points, or 0.7%, to close at 1319, and the Nasdaq Composite finished ahead by 26 points, or 0.9%, at 2757.

Shares of Home Depot ( HD) was led the Dow higher as the stock rose 2.8% to $37.70. The home improvement retailer said it plans to buy back $1 billion of outstanding shares in an accelerated share-repurchase program.

Telecom stocks AT&T ( T) and Verizon ( VZ) also traded near the top of the Dow, gaining for the second straight day. while Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ), Intel ( INTC), Bank of America ( BAC) and Kraft Foods ( KFT) were the biggest laggards.

Market breadth was positive with 66% of the stocks traded on the NYSE finishing higher while 31% declined.

Economic data on Tuesday was mostly weak but investors have proven willing to turn a blind eye in anticipation of a more positive March jobs report on Friday.

The S&P Case-Shiller 20-city home price index showed a slightly milder-than-expected decrease of 3.1% in January, after a decline of 2.43% in December. According to Briefing.com, economists had been expecting a drop of 3.5% in January.

The Conference Board said consumer confidence fell to a reading of 63.4 in March , which was lower than the reading of 65 that economists had been expecting, and far weaker than February's level of 72.

"The old joke is watch what consumers do, and not what they say," said John Canally, economist for LPL Financial, pointing to the weekly store sales data out earlier in the morning showing a 0.2% gain in sales and a year-over-year gain of 2.6%.

"What they're saying is basically that they're tired of turning on the TV and seeing bad news, they're tired of going to grocery stores and seeing that prices are up, they're tired of paying more at the gas pump and they're tired of seeing their 401ks essentially flat. That's what the consumer confidence report said: gasoline prices are up, there's bad news in Libya and bad news in Japan, and the stock market has been largely flat this month."

"I think one of the reasons why the market didn't really react to these numbers is that it's focused elsewhere, with the jobs stuff starting tomorrow," Canally said.

On Wednesday, ADP will report on company employment changes in March, followed by weekly initial jobless claims data from the Labor Department on Thursday and the government's March employment report on Friday. According to Briefing.com, economists expect to see that the U.S. economy added 185,000 jobs in March. The unemployment rate is projected to remain unchanged at 8.9%.

"Until consumers start to see job growth of 300,000 to 400,000 for several months in a row, they aren't going to believe in the recovery," Canally said.

Overseas, Standard & Poor's downgraded its debt ratings on Greek and Portuguese debt. The rating agency lowered its rating on Greece's sovereign debt by two notches to BB- from BB+. It knocked its rating on Portugal's senior debt down by one notch to BBB- from BBB. Both countries' ratings have a negative outlook.

Late Monday, President Barack Obama defended U.S. military action in Libya and vowed to use other measures to remove dictator Moammar Gadhafi from power, without offering details of the plan.

On Tuesday, Syria's 32-member cabinet, headed by Naji al-Otari, resigned in an apparent attempt to quiet uprisings that have spread throughout the Middle East, according to reports.

In commodity markets, the May crude contract rose 81 cents to settle at $104.79 a barrel. The April gold contract shed $3.70 to settle at $1,416.20 an ounce.

In stock news, BP ( BP) fell 2.4% to $44.96 on reports that it may face manslaughter charges in connection with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Halliburton ( HAL) rose 2.3% to $49 after it said it will increase production in Saudi Arabia , though it warned first quarter profit will be reduced by 8 to 12 cents per share due to adverse weather conditions and unrest in the Middle ERast.

Schlumberger ( SLB) also gained 4.3% to $94.36 on speculation that it too might increase its Saudi drilling activity.

Shares of AK Steel ( AKS) rose 5.2% to $16.42 after Steve Cohen's SAC Capital disclosed a 4.8% stake in the company.

Rowan Companies ( RDC), International Paper ( IP) and Quest Diagnostics ( DGX) were other gainers on the S&P.

Apollo Group ( APOL)saw its stock drop 4.2% to $40.55 after reporting a 45% decline in new enrollment in the second-quarter and issuing disappointing 2012 revenue guidance.

Shares of Lennar ( LEN) declined 3.4% at $19.07 as the homebuilder swung to a surprise profit in the first quarter and reported better-than-expected revenue .

Shares of Phillips-Van Heusen ( PVH) jumped 8.3% to $65.20 on better-than-expected quarterly results and an encouraging full-year outlook .

The benchmark 10-year Treasury fell 14/32, lifting the yield to 3.489%. The dollar strengthened against a basket of currencies with the dollar index up by 0.1%.

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--Written by Melinda Peer and Shanthi Bharatwaj in New York.v
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