(CBS News) DES MOINES, Iowa - Nearly four years ago, this flat, cornfield-covered, mostly-white Midwestern state was the launching pad for the triumphant presidential campaign of a Hawaii-born, African-American former law professor with a Harvard education and a Chicago political base.
In November, Republicans hope, it will help bring the improbable story of President Barack Obama - which began with a victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses that set the course for a stunning upset of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination - to a disappointing end.
"Four years ago, Iowans were excited about President Obama," said Sean McCoy, Romney for President's Iowa communications director. "And now they feel let down. Obama didn't create the millions of new jobs or turn the economy around or cut the deficit in half like he promised. And now we're seeing more and more that the thrill is gone and the hope is lost."
Though Iowa was narrowly decided in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, Mr. Obama won the state by nearly ten points in 2008. Democrats acknowledge that that's not likely to happen again, and the polls bear that out: They suggest that the Hawkeye State, which offers six electoral votes, is evenly split between the president and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
"It was a historic campaign, you're never going to replace that," said Sue Dvorsky, chair of the Iowa Democratic Party. "This time it's not thrilling. But I would suggest the stakes are much higher."
A potential dropoff in enthusiasm has Char Gustafson, who works at a Des Moines hospice organization, worried. Sitting on a bench at the massive Iowa State Fair - which Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan visits today - the liberal Democrat says she doesn't know if neighbors who came out for Mr. Obama four years ago will do so this time around.
"It's been a tough four years. Everybody's been busy working. And they're concerned about their jobs," she said. "And I think that people are just a little leery of everything."
Mr. Obama is clearly concerned: He begins a three-day bus tour through Iowa today, kicking things off in Council Bluffs. The president's speech, his campaign says, will contrast his vision to help the middle class with a Republican agenda that puts the rich first.
That's a message that resonates with dairy farmer Martin Costello, who stood inside one of the fair's cavernous livestock buildings filling a water bucket for one of his cows.
"I'm a small, independent business owner, and I'm not wealthy, and I think Mitt Romney is going to support the wealthy," he said.
Costello is a Democrat, but he votes for Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and says he wishes the government hadn't had to bail out the auto industries and big banks. He's the sort of voter that Tom Harkin, Iowa's other senator, says defines the Iowa electorate.
"By and large Iowans are pretty progressive people, but they have a conservative streak too," Harkin said after flipping chops and shaking hands at the Iowa pork tent. Like Grassley, he seems in person more like a retired farmer than a powerful longtime senator. "And they want a nice balance."
Harkin argues that Mr. Obama is going to win Iowa once again because he has offered that balance during his first term. But he is not predicting the sort of victory the president saw in 2008, when Mr. Obama offered a vision of hope and change unsullied by the compromises that come with incumbency.
"He's going to win Iowa," Harkin said. "It may not be as big as last time. But he's going to win it."
Romney the unrelatable?
Part of the reason, Harkin suggested, is that Romney - with his career in finance, his East Coast political base, and his perfect hair - simply isn't relatable to the average Iowan. When he came to the fair last summer, Romney looked less than natural when photographed in a short-sleeve shirt biting into a pork chop on a stick. (He steered clear of some of the fair's more infamous concoctions, like butter on a stick and deep-fried Oreo cookies.) Harkin expressed incredulity that on a recent visit to the drought-stricken state, Romney decided to visit a farm owned by a millionaire who owns a total of 54 farms.
"It's not really representative of the average Iowa farmer," he said. "Again just sort of - Governor Romney just kind of being out of touch."
Even if that perception takes hold, it may not hurt Romney as much as Harkin hopes. Asked if he could relate to the presumptive GOP nominee, Chris Vandehaar of Altoona offered a definitive no. But that didn't mean Romney didn't have his vote.
"He's not going to come to my house and have a beer," he said. "He's going to run the nation."