1 of 3
Allen Breed, Associated Press
In this Monday, Nov. 28, 2011 photo, Debbie Miles folds T-shirts at Mayberry on Main in Mount Airy, N.C. She and her family moved here from Indiana several years ago because they fell in love with the town, but business at their shop is off about 10 percent from a couple of years ago.

A decade ago, customers flocked to the store in the converted fire station on the east side of Toledo, Ohio, in pursuit of Old Glory.

Howard Pinkley established Flags Sales & Repair in 1960, and runs it with his daughter, Wendy Beallas. In days after Sept. 11, 2001, customers lined up outside the door. Americans wanted to show their pride, their determination, their Americanism.

It's all a fading memory now.

These days, folks are focused on paying bills. A new flag is a luxury, and the unvarnished patriotism of 10 years ago has been replaced by disgust with government.

A recent Wednesday saw just two walk-in customers. Father and daughter have cut their payroll, but talk openly about whether they should give up. They're no less dispirited than their neighbors.

"I go home and I refuse to listen to the news because it's frustrating," Beallas says. "To me, it's not coming together and getting things done."

When Ronald Reagan ran for re-election, his advertisements boasted that it was morning in America. Nearly three decades later, as another presidential campaign begins, it feels like twilight — or, if it is morning, it is the kind of gray winter daybreak when the sun is only a rumor and only an optimist clings to hope that the clouds will break.

Listen to Americans in three closely contested states and you'll hear the same plaintive echoes, not just about politics or the upcoming election, but about the unsettling predicament that is America in 2011.

Republicans or Democrats, liberal or conservative, young or old, they lack confidence — in the country's potential to be great again, in their elected leaders' ability to do the right thing, in the economy and in themselves.

It's not that they feel incapable of doing what needs to be done, as much as they are uncertain about what that right thing is and whether anything they can do will have any real impact.

In Mount Airy, N.C., where a quaint Main Street is merely a reminder of better days: "We need to get back to the '60s and the '50s, and we need to get ourselves back to where we used to be — standing on our own two feet," says long-haul trucker Harry J. Moore, 57, punching a beefy fist into his open left hand to punctuate each syllable. "We're losing our pride. Our pride's gone away."

In North Las Vegas,, Nev., where the bursting of the housing bubble has forced hard choices: "People have lost a lot of spirit," says Elmer Chowning, 70, who had hoped to slow down in his golden years, but is instead still working in real estate while raising his 8-year-old granddaughter.

In Lima, Ohio, where people have seen America's industrial might falter: "I'm just waiting for China or somebody to take us over. That's the way it seems," says Becky Jamison, 36, who has watched her 18-year-old son look unsuccessfully for work for months. "Because we're just falling apart."

If you look, you can find optimism in Ohio.

The Armstrong Air & Space Museum is in Wapakoneta, hometown of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. It stands as a monument to an earlier, more hopeful time, and there are visitors who are convinced that those times can come again.

To Stephen Andrasik, a foam salesman from Indianapolis who has stopped in to the museum on his way back home from a business trip, the U.S. remains resilient, facing problems that can be solved by new leaders in Washington who will allow Americans to live up to their potential.

"I think we're still the same people we were back then," says Andrasik. He studies a display case filled with inventions that were spinoffs of the space program, everything from fireproof clothing to battery-powered hand tools.

"I'm assuming it's going to get better as long as the American people have the ability to do what they want, to invent things, to start new businesses, we'll be as great as we've always been."

But standing before a model of the Apollo 11 command module at the edge of the museum's parking lot, Jake Retter, a chimney cleaner from Blissfield, Mich., notes the irony of a country that once raced a communist rival to put a man on the moon and now relies on China to buy its debt.

Rather than pursuing national goals, politicians chase their own divisive agendas, he says. A nation built on hard work and thrift has lost sight of what really matters.

"This country's been falling apart for the last 50 years. It's taken time," Retter says. "It's not that capitalism is failing us. It's that we're failing capitalism."

For many years, this region provided the muscle of American capitalism. Its pride in its talent for making things is evident in Toledo place names such as Jeep Parkway and the Veteran's Glass City Bridge.

The long, slow decline of factory work has been a source of constant sorrow in the Rust Belt. Recent stirrings such as announcements by Chrysler and General Motors that they will add 1,400 new jobs at their plants in Toledo, and Ford's plans to ramp up engine production in Lima have offered some reason to hope.

"I can definitely feel like the forward momentum is there" — jobs at the union hall are picking up, says Kurt Kaufman, 31. A union electrician, he worked steadily until 2006. He has since spent as much as nine months between jobs.

Still, he says, "I don't think it's ever going to be as good as it was around here."

But a bad economy, some say, is not at the core of what ails northwestern Ohio, and America. There have been hard times before, and there will be again. The real problem, they say, is in Americans and their leaders.

"What's different from this and the Great Depression is that the moral fiber has changed," says Russ Terry, a retired postal carrier who lives outside Lima and has stopped in for a morning break at The Meeting Place on Market, a coffee and sandwich shop downtown. "The reason we can't handle this is we don't have the moral backbone, the stick-to-it-tiveness, the collective people working together."

Terry, who describes his politics as very conservative, blames the federal government for printing too much money in an attempt to stimulate the economy. But at its heart, the country's failings reflect the will of individuals, he says. "The government is just a reflection of the people, is it not?"

Just down the road from Toledo's GM plant, Martin Ridener says his worries are based on more than 20 years of running a 16-unit apartment building he once thought would pay for his retirement. Instead, a building that used to generate a steady income is now barely covering its expenses, as many tenants lose jobs, fall behind on rent and move out.

Ridener, who is 75 and votes Republican, can't imagine voting for President Barack Obama given the state of the economy, but he can't see how Republicans taking over the White House will make things any better.

"I don't consider either side wrong in what they're doing. What I resent is that every Democrat thinks completely one way and every Republican thinks another way. They're afraid to talk over it and do what's best for the country."

Across town, most of the red-checked tables are full at the Hungarian hot dog purveyor Tony Packo's. But between bites, Pat Shupe, a 72-year-old homemaker, says she worries about the world her 3-year-old granddaughter will inherit with seemingly limited opportunities.

"I absolutely see no light at the end of the tunnel until something is done in this country to equalize opportunity for people to get a job," Shupe says.

While the 2008 election gave her hope that the country could work through its problems, the gridlock in Washington has robbed her of that brief optimism.

"I think we're just ruining ourselves," Shupe says, "destroying ourselves."

Not everyone shares that bleak outlook.

Terri Leary's employer eliminated her job as a senior housing manager in 2009, six months after her husband lost work in construction management. Leary, 44, was convinced that her lack of a college degree had made her expendable, so she enrolled at Owens Community College's campus in Perrysburg.

Days before her graduation ceremony in early December, she sat in the commons area of College Hall and described the tough times of the past few years as an opportunity, an outlook entirely decoupled from politics.

The job losses and belt-tightening, she is convinced, were "a good thing. It teaches the kids very valuable life lessons, you know, make good with what you have. ... We learned we can do more with less and be just as happy."

There are lessons to be learned, agrees 29-year-old Erin Tupper.

She and her husband, Marc, have much to be thankful for. They have been married just a week, they have a home of their own (albeit modest and worth less than it used to be), and Marc prizes his job as a police officer. But they look around, and see evidence of an America that has lost its way.

Erin, recalling her father's pride in his work as a truck driver hauling new Jeeps off the Toledo assembly line, says she and her friends talk now of employers who pile on hours while treating workers as expendable.

When she drives near her childhood home, she is dismayed by the big homes on what was once farmland, a sign of misplaced values centered on instant gratification and overspending. People seem to be more concerned with themselves and their own narrow interests than in working together for the common good.

"We're learning a lesson," she says. And if we don't, "we'll be right back to where we were."

"Your Community of Choice," reads the motto on signs spread around the city of North Las Vegas, and for a while it was.

Once among the fastest-growing places in the country, the city saw thousands of stucco and tile-roof homes sprout up to accommodate retirees and a middle-class workforce coming for jobs in the booming casino and construction industries. The city added workers, increased revenue and embarked on ambitious plans for redevelopment projects to keep pace with the growth.

Today the community is deeply in debt, cutting programs, laying off employees, fending off a possible state takeover and weighing still more difficult decisions that will directly affect the 220,000 people who live here.

Talk to people on the street, in the library, at the recreation center, and seemingly everyone knows someone who is out of work. If they own a home, its value has decreased substantially and their neighborhoods are filled with forsaken properties. You can't watch TV without seeing local commercials for help with loan modifications or from lawyers pledging to keep the banks from your assets.

The Neighborhood Recreation Center sits in the old part of town, a lifeline for senior citizens in need and young people whose parents can't afford fancy gyms. Over the summer, struggling to plug an overall $30 million budget deficit for the fiscal year and unable to reach a deal with police unions over cuts, the North Las Vegas City Council voted to close the center.

People who consider it a second home revolted, descending on council meetings with signs and petitions in hand.

The facility was saved only after the local police union agreed to defer for six months a cost-of-living increase and distribution of accumulated holiday pay. That was enough to keep the center open through next summer.

Recreation supervisor Neil Gallant sits at a desk littered with spreadsheets as he works to find grant money or other ways to subsidize the center's costs. He talks of his seniors feeling "abandoned" when the City Council voted to close the center and of a sense of disconnection between elected leaders and those they serve.

The politicians don't know the people, Gallant says. "They don't see them."

That sentiment was echoed by so many in North Las Vegas, but especially Gallant's struggling older clientele. They are women like Nita Hargis and Maxine Delisle, who live on meager Social Security checks and depend on the center's $1.50 hot lunch (rising to $3 come January) and the companionship they find in ceramics class.

One Thursday, instead of molding candy dishes, they vented about the state of their community and the country, and the overarching theme was one of neglect — a feeling that every level of government is ignoring their needs and has failed them, despite so many promises to do otherwise.

For Hargis, a 65-year-old who has lived almost her entire life in North Las Vegas and worked a variety of jobs — painter, gift shop clerk, remodeler — recent efforts to attempt to modify her home loan left her exasperated and in worse shape than she started.

"They ran me around for nine months. They ruined my credit. I even got one of these government guys that was supposed to help me, and all he did was say, 'Well, call 'em back, call 'em back.' He never did anything to help me," she says.

For Delisle, it's the glaring imbalance between people like her and those in government that leaves her feeling alienated. She notes that there hasn't been a cost-of-living increase in Social Security for three years, yet it took months of difficult negotiations to get the local police union to agree to forgo its adjustment for just six months.

Nineteen-year-old Oscar Corral works the front desk at the recreation center. He's a philosophical young man with an optimistic smile and outlook. Neither of his parents graduated from high school, and yet his mom is an accounting manager at a local cab company while his father works construction. His dad was laid off not long ago but soon found another job and is "hanging on a thread."

"There's this thing about humans. When they're pushed, I guess they go into survival mode and they really work hard," says Corral, who studies audio production at The Art Institute of Las Vegas.

He likens the many problems facing Americans right now to climbing a mountain. "From far away," he says, "it looks impossible. But when you start getting close up, you see there's cracks here that I can climb up and you just attack it little by little. ... Sometimes we just get caught up in the big problem."

It's true that in North Las Vegas, as is the case nationally, the problems are so big it's hard not to get caught up in them. Short-term fixes and eventual union concessions kept the city afloat this fiscal year, but already officials are predicting a $15.5 million deficit for the next budget cycle.

Says Elmer Chowning, the real estate agent: "We're a fast society. We want things to happen. And this is a thing that is lingering, lingering, lingering."

It's no wonder, he adds, that people have taken to streets and parks in the Occupy Wall Street protests.

"There is a tremendous feeling of camaraderie," he says, but also "hurt and madness."

A couple of weeks ago, North Las Vegas and its residents did their best to put all of that aside for a time. Hundreds gathered on an unusually blustery evening to celebrate the grand opening of a nine-story City Hall — a project launched when the city was flush — and watch as the town Christmas tree was lit.

It was a night meant to represent a fresh start, the promise of tomorrow.

Nita Hargis was there with some of her friends from the recreation center, wondering aloud why the city felt the need to hand out commemorative tiles and paperweights and what was the cost to taxpayers. The Chownings brought their granddaughter, and stood in the back as a children's choir sang Christmas carols and ballerinas danced on the shiny new granite floor.

Soon they, and everyone, were joining in the carols, applauding the entertainers, sipping hot chocolate.

Soon, their worries seemed to fade. At least for one night, anyway.

By comparison, Mount Airy is a bit of fantasy in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains.

The hometown of Andy Griffith, it is Mayberry — America as it used to be, or as we would like to believe it used to be, when the nation's industrial and military might was unquestioned and seemed unbounded; when a man, even one without a high school diploma, could earn enough to own a house, buy a new car every couple of years and send his kids to college for a better life than even he'd enjoyed. Stroll down Main Street, and you expect to meet characters like Aunt Bea, Goober and Floyd the barber.

They're not here. Instead, you'll find businessmen and women struggling to survive the recession by selling nostalgia, and real people eager to buy.

"They're looking for what we wish that times could be again," says Debbie Miles, who moved here with her husband from southern Indiana five years ago and opened Mayberry on Main, where the walls and shelves are lined with items like Aunt Bea's Kerosene Cucumbers and Otis's Moonshine Jelly. "That's the main thing that we hear. 'We wish that it could be like that again — like it was on the show.'"

Business is down about 10 percent from a couple of years ago. But Miles can't afford that kind of pessimism.

"You know, if you're an optimistic person, you think there's nowhere to go but up," she says with a laugh. "It probably does try everyone, but I think you still have to be optimistic, you know? That's what Americans are supposed to do — think for the future."

Darrel Miles — who, like his wife, is a registered Democrat but did not vote for Obama — finds it a bit harder to be hopeful.

"I think they need to turn the whole upside down in Washington and shake it real good," says Miles, who worked 32 years for a company that made soda and ice dispensers. "I think we might have the wrong government, the wrong people trying to fix certain things. There's too many hands in the fire, as you would say. I mean they can't even come to agreement even within their own parties to fix certain things, you know?"

Across the street, at Snappy Lunch, business is down 20 percent or 30 percent over a couple of years ago, says Mary Dowell, whose husband, Charles, has owned the restaurant since 1960.

"We still have tourists who come in, but the bus groups have dropped a little bit," Dowell says over the sizzle of meat for the diner's "famous pork chop sandwich." ''Last year, I did have to give everybody a day a week off, because we were so slow. And we'll probably do that this year."

On this sunny afternoon, Jennifer Brown stands outside Snappy Lunch and peers through the window. Her parents, Steve and Diane, both have good jobs in manufacturing. But the 27-year-old Cleveland-area woman, who has an associate's degree in office management, can't find permanent employment.

"I did telemarketing. I worked at a park. I even worked at a county fair for a week," she says. "I'm doing side jobs, some retail. But nothing that I wound up being able to keep."

Her mother, whose company was recently bought out by a European firm, can't help feeling that the U.S. is in decline.

"Because the average person can't graduate from high school and find a job," she says. "It's easier for somebody to come from another country and get started than it is for us who grew up here."

"Mmmm," her daughter nods in agreement. Jennifer Brown motions to the street scene around her.

"This is where it needs to go back to," she says. "Like the American dream. America, not the socialist stuff that's going on. And where you could just, you can get a job."

Around the corner from the bustle of Main Street, in front of the Andy Griffith Playhouse and Museum, Sheriff Andy Taylor and son Opie stride in bronze, hand in hand, rods over their shoulders, toward an imaginary fishing hole. A plaque at their feet reads, "a simpler time."

Inside the museum, the gauges on two vintage "ethyl" gas pumps are frozen at 17.9 cents a gallon. Oil worker Jeff Zwicker of Vacaville, Calif., poses for a photo with museum founder (and Griffith childhood friend) Emmett Forrest.

Zwicker, 55, a 20-year Air Force veteran who served on cargo planes in Operation Desert Storm, is worried about the deficit and American indebtedness to foreign creditors such as China. But if Washington can get those things under control — and he's confident it can — "I think the future's great for our country."

"We're a great nation," he says. "We have a lot of smart people here, and if we put all the smart people on this and get it going. But you've gotta get serious about it, you know? You've gotta really do it. You've gotta WANT to do it."

Forrest isn't so sure. The 84-year-old former electric company vice president says Obama has "taken us down the path to absolute ruin" and, if he's re-elected, "there'll be no recovery from it."

"Ten or 20 years ago, I think we were the shining star of the world, and our star has dimmed quite a bit," he says. "I guess I'm just cornpone patriotic. I love this country and hate to see it go down."

But to Pablo Hernandez, these are good times.

Hernandez, 45, came here from Mexico in 1987. He traveled the country, picking apples, oranges, tomatoes — "everything" — before landing a job at a chicken-processing plant in nearby Dobson.

For the past five years, he and his wife, Salustria, 33, have operated La Sierrita Tienda Mexicana in a strip mall on a bypass outside downtown. They sell everything from black beans and dried chilies to CDs from groups like Los Rancheros and Fortunato y sus Cometas.

Sure, Hernandez is concerned about the recent wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in places like Alabama and South Carolina. The couple's two daughters — Lesley, 13, and Nadia, 6 — were born here, but the parents have their green cards. But he is not a pessimist.

The American Dream "is still alive for me," he says, as Nadia reads a picture book beneath a ceiling dangling with colorful pinatas. "Because I'm still here, you know."

Pauline Arrillaga reported from North Las Vegas, Nev., Allen G. Breed reported from Mount Airy, N.C., and Adam Geller reported from Toledo and Lima, Ohio. They can be reached at features(at)ap.org.