ORLANDO — If anyone should worry President Barack Obama, it's Marie Lane, a soft-spoken 27-year-old Walmart clerk with long brown hair and glasses.
She voted for Obama in 2008, swept up by his exuberant promise to remake Washington, and the country. Now, unable to utilize her college degree, Lane is looking at Republicans.
"If the economy can't be stabilized, I won't support him," she said. "I want to. I like him."
Lane recently moved from Kansas to St. Petersburg and joined Florida's swelling number of independent voters. These swing voters are crucial to who wins the White House.
A drive this week from St. Petersburg to Orlando, where a big chunk of the state's more than 2 million independent voters reside, revealed a cursed highway for Obama, with independent voter after voter looking for another change in 2012.
"He's super intelligent, but he's terrible at getting things done," said Greg Peters, 42, a restaurant owner in downtown Orlando and independent voter who said he's already moved off the fence and is hoping a better Republican candidate emerges.
Winning Florida requires that Obama not only turn out Democrats in big numbers, but that he also win at least 50 percent of independents, something he did in 2008 against John McCain, 52 percent to 45 percent. The math has gotten increasingly more difficult.
Florida tends to mirror the national electorate, and a New York Times/CBS News poll last week found only 37 percent of independent voters approved of the president's performance. Likewise, an August Mason-Dixon poll found 55 percent of independent voters in Florida disapproved of Obama's performance.
"They want one thing — they want results, and when they don't get results, they change their minds and go the other way," noted Democratic pollster Tom Eldon of Sarasota.
That's what independents did in 2010, giving Republicans control of the U.S. House, and that appears to be where they're leaning heading into 2012.
In interviews this week, independent voters agreed that Obama is a nice guy and well-meaning. But they're pessimistic about jobs, housing and their futures.
Obama's message of change clearly penetrated this group, but now — with change a murky concept in a cascade of bad economic news and excessive partisanship — it appears to have raised high expectations and left many jaded.
Voters have picked up on the Republican strategy to oppose nearly everything Obama has proposed. "That's why the message of the 'do-nothing Congress' has some Republicans terrified," Eldon said.
At the same time, some independents in Florida show little sympathy for Obama.
"I think the baggage he carries forward, if he gets elected, is another four years of gridlock," said Ryan Deeds, a 35-year-old information technology worker who was taking lunch Monday at a park in Lakeland. "I don't want to throw my vote away."
Deeds said he is open to a Republican who could represent what he called a "compromise nation," but the GOP contest has become a test of who is the most rigid conservative.
As the Republican candidates gather for Presidency 5 in Orlando this week to court the most hard-core activists, some party strategists fret about the general election.
"It's the playbook that has been utilized in recent elections, that in order to win a primary, a candidate has to go so far to the right and then they have to reinvent themselves to appeal to the general election electorate. That does not bode well for making Obama a one-term president,'' said Shannon Gravitte, a veteran Republican strategist in Orlando.
Peter Brown of Quinnipiac University Polling Institute said Democrats will work hard to cast the eventual nominee as an extremist, but there are some election cycles — Reagan's victory in 1980, for instance — where perceptions of competence can trump ideology.
"It is quite possible that in 2012 independents who normally ask themselves, which candidate is closer to me ideologically may not use that test," Brown said. "It may be they ask themselves which candidate is best equipped to make sure I have a job and can send my kid to college."
Case in point: Carla Hamlet, 34, of Plant City, who was unemployed for a year and now works in a hot dog shack in Tampa.
"If somebody else came along, if I felt they had a better chance at getting something done, whether or not their polices were actually better than (Obama's), I would probably vote for them," she said.
Obama's attempts to reach the middle have often frustrated his Democratic base. He backed off on efforts to repeal the Bush-era tax cuts (he's since renewed the call), pursued a less-aggressive drawdown of the wars than promised in 2008 and has offered up changes to entitlement programs.
"I have hard-core Democrat friends who don't think he's forceful enough. I like that's he made strides to work across party lines," said Tonya Simmons, an environmental consultant and independent voter, who was making a late run to Home Depot in Tampa on Sunday.
Simmons, 43, said the jobs plan Obama released last week demonstrates that commitment. She intends to vote for Obama again, yet doubts he can win re-election. She cited a litany of obstacles, including what she perceived as lingering racism.
By contrast, Amanda Stroup said Obama has tried to placate Republicans too much. The Tampa independent voter was angered by his decision earlier this month to abandon new Environmental Protection Agency standards for smog pollution.
"He buckled under the Republican Congress," said Stoup, 31, who may vote for a third-party candidate if one emerges to her liking.
Across the board, Obama's biggest problem is the economy. The national unemployment rate hovers above 9 percent; Florida's is a stubborn 10.7 percent. Democrats argue that it's a situation that takes time to cure. Some independents, though, are restless.
"He said he was going to make it better. Now we are back in a recession again," said Maria Encinosa, 51, an independent voter from Largo, also considering Republicans this time around.
Even some independents with stable jobs say Obama's struggles have them reaching for an alternative.
"There are way too many homeless people," said Manny Caride, a 29-year-old television producer in Orlando who hovered over an Apple computer at a downtown Starbucks.
"Obama convinced me," he said, sighing. "I thought there would be change."