"This is 2004 all over again," Luntz said afterward. "John Kerry succeeded in convincing a majority of Americans that George W. Bush did not deserve reelection - but he never succeeded in getting those same people to believe that he deserved to replace him."
Again and again, the Luntz group of North Carolina voters expressed stressful feelings over the economy. One middle-aged woman said she felt "worthless, absolutely worthless," after being without a job for two years. Another feared she would not be able to provide for a child with Down syndrome because of crushing medical bills. And a third, who had lost her job for four months but recently found another, can't relax.
"Every time I go to work, I wonder how long I am going to be there," she said. "It's just this fear that I can't get rid of. It's just awful."
Thirteen of the participants said they were worse off financially than they were in 2008 - when Obama won this state over John McCain by the narrowest of margins. Six said they were better off, and seven reported that things were about the same.
Yet, when they were asked about the nation as a whole, 22 said America was worse off than it was before Obama's presidency.
The participants were closely divided: 11 said they were undecided, 9 were leaning toward Romney, and 7 said they intended to or probably would vote for Obama.
That reflects the tightness of the race in North Carolina, where the Real Clear Politics average of independent polls finds that Romney leads by 47 percent to 45 percent. The latest survey, conducted by Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling from Friday through Sunday, found Romney and Obama in a dead heat at 48 percent each in North Carolina.
Anita Furr, 64, who said in the group session that she was undecided, later suggested she would probably end up voting for Obama, whom she supported in 2008 - though not because she's wild about him.
"Yes, he's made mistakes, but I am hoping he'll be able to correct them," Furr, a retired computer systems administrator from Charlotte, said of the president. "If there were a different Republican candidate, maybe I'd vote that way. I don't think Romney is capable of relating to regular middle-class people. He was not raised that way."
Besides, Furr believes that the country's economic problems are so complex that even if Romney replaced Obama, "it would take him as long or longer to accomplish anything," she said in the post-session interview.
She said she was laid off two years ago and could not land another job despite an extensive search. "People would see me come in - I was coloring my hair then, but they didn't want to look at an older person."
Patrick Kanetzke, 44, a registered Republican who voted for Obama in 2008, said he was having buyer's remorse and would vote for Romney. He had hoped Obama would bring more transparency to the government and make it work better.
"I thought he would bring the country together, and it's worse than ever in my opinion. I feel like he's done nothing," Kanetzke said after the focus group.
Mim McDermott is also planning to vote for Romney, though she likes Obama and has not closed the door on him. "I'm going to try to be open-minded," McDermott, 72, said. "I think he means well - I just wish he would get rid of some of his handlers. If he were to get rid of some of those coat-tailers, he'd be better off."
Democrats are hoping that holding their convention here can help them carry the battleground state. The choice of convention sites doesn't always help politically - the party's nominee has gone on to win just half the states that hosted the 44 Democratic conventions through 2008.
Some demographic trends in the state bode well for Obama: thanks to regions such as the so-called Research Triangle, 27 percent of North Carolina's voters have a college degree or better - and better-educated voters tend to support Obama.
But other numbers don't. Unemployment in the state is well above the national percentage.
To crack North Carolina, where polls show Romney has been running better than in many other swing states, the Obama team is going to use the convention as an organizing opportunity.
"Ours will be a working convention," said Stephanie Cutter, Obama's deputy campaign manager. "We will be focused on bringing people to the table, registering new voters, engaging the people" and recruiting volunteers for the 47 field offices Obama has in the state. Those offices are used for phone banks, canvassing, and other forms of voter outreach.
The model comes straight from Colorado, the swing state where the Democrats held their 2008 convention. Obama's team used events there to amass a kind of instant grassroots army that, in retrospect, they credit with helping win the state.
When 84,000 people heard Obama's acceptance speech live at the Invesco Field football stadium there, campaign workers harvested many of their e-mail addresses and cellphone numbers on the way inside; 25,000 people in the crowd were recruited as get-out-the-vote volunteers for the final weeks of the campaign.
Obama is scheduled to speak Thursday night at the home of the football Carolina Panthers; organizers hope to draw a crowd of 75,000.
Notable Speakers At the Convention
The following people will be featured at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
First lady Michelle Obama.
Mayor Julian Castro, San Antonio, Texas, keynote speaker.
Former President Bill Clinton.
Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren.
Vice President Biden.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
Keep up with the latest on the Democratic convention - including live reports from The Inquirer's Thomas Fitzgerald and Matt Katz - at www.philly.com/conventions
Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org