CHEROKEE, N.C. -- The glossy, towering multiplex of Harrah's Cherokee hotel and casino stands out as an island of optimism in this otherwise bleak reservation town.
"It's all good fun!" exclaimed Jeff, a railroad engineer in his late 30s with spiky blonde hair, still cheerful on a recent Wednesday despite having lost a few hundred dollars playing poker.
Five floors above, Joy, a hair salon owner who, like others interviewed for this story, would give only her first name, was celebrating her 59th birthday at an Italian restaurant with white wine, cake and her best friend, also named Joy.
These are the types of voters that Democrats hope will once again swing the state for President Barack Obama in November. North Carolina's unemployment rate is nearly two points higher than the national average, and disappointment with the slow pace of economic recovery has been widespread. Still, the 10 casino employees and patrons who agreed to speak with The Huffington Post about the upcoming elections all said they feel better off now than they did four years ago.
But despite their economic optimism, only two said they were planning to vote for Obama.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been building a slight lead in North Carolina all summer, according to polling averages from HuffPost Pollster. If Romney can win over middle-class voters whose finances have improved recently, North Carolina could become the Republican Party's best chance to recapture a state that Democrats won in 2008.
Still, Romney has his work cut out for him. Of the 10 people interviewed, six said they were still undecided.
"I like Obama, man, but those promises he made are tough to live up to," said Steve, a 59-year-old janitor with a goatee, wearing a short-sleeved red uniform and chewing on a toothpick. "As for Romney, well, I don't know much about him, really, and so right now I'd say I'm fully undecided. But I'm definitely gonna vote."
Steve said he has voted Republican every time he's voted in a presidential election. "I'm gonna start paying attention to what they say more now," he said. "I guess they've both got about two months to convince me."
According to a Pew survey taken after the Democratc and Republican national conventions, only 31 percent of respondents said they were following the election coverage "very closely." That will likely change as election day approaches.
Joy, the salon owner and a lifelong Republican, said she remained optimistic that Romney could win her vote before November -- provided, she said, that he conveys an understanding of the challenges facing working mothers like her.
The GOP convention in Tampa, she said, actually turned her off. "I wasn't moved at all by the speeches, and I wish I had just stuck my head in the sand and voted [for Romney] without seeing them," she said.
In particular, Joy said, it was Ann Romney's speech, designed to connect with women voters, that gave her the most pause. "That speech made me think, 'Wow, now there's a lady who's never had to do anything like what I did [raising two sons on my own],'" Joy said.
Gaining support among women has been especially challenging for Romney, who trailed Obama by double digits, 55 percent to 44 percent, among likely women voters this month, according to a CNN poll.
Erin, a slight, 27-year-old blonde in a red polyester shirt who works cleaning out ashtrays on the casino floor, said there's nothing that could win her vote. Squinting behind light-sensitive glasses turned amber by the harsh casino lamps, Erin said she has never voted, and doesn't plan to this time. But as a fellow Mormon, she said she admires Romney and is excited that he's running for president. Despite her apathy about the polls, she said she'd volunteer for Romney if she were asked.
Young, disaffected voters like Erin represent a key piece of the electorate that Republicans need to tap into in the coming months and years. In 2012, many of these voters were drawn to the libertarian message of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). But as fewer and fewer young people are motivated by traditional conservative cultural issues, such as gay marriage, the party faces a philosophical challenge if it hopes to keep growing its ranks of young people.
Jeff, the railroad engineer, is unemployed, but said he quit a bad job because he was confident he'd be able to find better work -- something he would never have done in 2009. "Obama's done alright, and I figure he's done the best he can," said Jeff, taking a break from beer to sip on a bottle of water.
"I'm gonna vote, but I'm not totally sure [who I'll vote for]. It's not Romney I don't trust, it's Paul Ryan -- he seems like such a politician."
Tilting his head, he noted, "I'd like to have a beer with Obama, though. A guy who could [feel at home] sitting here ... now that would be cool."
Over the course of the evening, only one person offered a spirited defense of the president and fellow Democrats. The "other" Joy -- the best friend of the birthday girl -- said she is a confirmed Democrat and that a federal mortgage readjustment in 2009 helped her keep her house. Since then, she said, things have been looking up. While she's disappointed with the president in some ways, she said she still planned to vote for him in November.
"Romney, or any new guy, is just too big of a gamble," Joy said between cigarette puffs, as she prepared to feed a debit card into a digital slot machine with a leprechaun on it.
"I mean, at least I know what Obama's about. And it's not perfect, but at least I know the guy."
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