CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Democrats kicked off their national convention here on Labor Day with a downtown street fair delivering a soft-rock version of the delirious pop culture spirit that infused President Obama's historic run for the presidency four years ago.

But reviving the spirit of Denver might be a tall order. Still hoping to party like it's 2008, with singer-songwriter James Taylor headlining the main stage, Obama partisans came to Charlotte yearning to recapture the magic of a relatively untested senator from Illinois with a "funny name" who inspired voters with a message of hope. "I still have the fire in my heart," said retired Forest Service firefighter Denny FitzPatrick, a delegate from Grand Marais, Minn. "There's still so much change that has to happen." But the focus, he added, "has to be on Obama, not the drama."

Meg Litts, a delegate from Onamia and chair of the Mille Lacs County DFL, said the feeling is different the second time around. "I think it's a different kind of excitement," she said. "It is not about something new and different, but it is an excitement about moving forward."

Jessica Rohlaff, a delegate from Willmar who became involved in politics because of Obama, said she was worried that the 2008 excitement was a singular moment in history and the inspiration would fade over time. But she was encouraged anew when she saw all the young Minnesotans vying to attend the national convention. "It's still alive. It's still out there," she said.

Still, amid the jubilation of the daylong CarolinaFest 2012, there was reason to believe that times have changed. A frustratingly slow recovery is turning the race into a referendum on the economy and Obama's leadership.

Republicans believe that the momentum has swung back to their side, as some independent voters disenchanted with the pace of change and the combative tone in Washington have decided that Obama didn't live up to the promise of's campaign anthem, "Yes We Can."

'Not his fault'

As the convention begins, polls show that slightly more people disapprove than approve of the job Obama is doing. For that, Minnesota delegates tend to blame Republican intransigence in Congress.

"Although there are a lot of progressives like me who wish he had accomplished more, we know it is not his fault," said Leanne Kunze, a public union official and delegate from Waconia.

Phil Sterner, a delegate from Rosemount, called the Obama spark of 2012 "a more mature spark."

But if it's impossible for even the most passionate Obama believers to fall in love for the first time more than once, Democratic strategists say they don't have to. Shifting the focus back on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff, told NBC-TV's "Meet The Press" over the weekend that GOP policies under Romney would be a "Groundhog Day" reprise of the Bush-era politics that preceded the financial crisis of 2008.

That is expected to be one of the prominent themes of the Democrats' convention. But it still portends a mood of diminished expectations.

Luke Mielke, a young Minnesota activist, worried out loud to a group of Obama volunteers recently in a St. Paul campaign office: "It's kind of hard to say, 'Vote for Obama because the other guy's worse.'"

"I don't like that kind of politics," Mielke said. He said he knows people who think Obama has not been liberal enough to deserve re-election, but he's confident the president "is making steps in the right direction."

Political ju-jitsu

But as the Obama faithful have been making their way to Charlotte, the Republicans have been making sport out of mocking the transcendent mood of Obama's 2008 victory. In a feat of political ju-jitsu, Romney has tried to turn the enchantment of 2008 against Obama.

"President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans," Romney said in his acceptance speech in Tampa last week. "My promise is to help you and your family."

The GOP's scorn is animated in part by the energy of the populist Tea Party movement that took hold immediately after Obama's inauguration in 2009, helping Republicans wrest control of the U.S. House and emboldening the party's small government message in Tampa.

"If you think about the energy and successes of the Republican Party in the last three years, it comes from all of us new people coming in," said FreedomWorks leader Matt Kibbe, who addressed the libertarian-leaning Minnesota GOP delegation in Tampa.

With relatively few undecided voters in 2012 -- meaning a close election that could be decided by voter turnout -- Republicans think they've recaptured the edge that they had before Obama, during George W. Bush's 2004 reelection campaign.

They see elements of the far left dispirited, including the anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street crowd whose remnants have been rallying in Charlotte. At a campaign kickoff in May, they remind people, Obama failed to fill Ohio State University's 18,000 seat basketball arena.

"The newness and wonder of Obama has worn off," said Minnesota GOP strategist Scott Cottington. "The fact that it's a base election is a bigger problem for Obama than it is for Romney."

But Democrats preparing for Charlotte say they're just getting started.

"I push back on the notion that there's going to be less excitement and enthusiasm and organizing happening," said Jeff Blodgett, director of the Obama campaign in Minnesota. "2008 wasn't just about the magic of the moment. It was also about a tremendous on-the-ground organizing effort that the campaign laid down. If anything, the organizational effort now is bigger than it was in 2008."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.