Greenville, North Carolina — Paul Ryan, the Republican nominee for vice president, delivered a sharply critical speech here today, telling thousands of supporters that they "weren't better off" than they were four years ago. "The Jimmy Carter years look like the good old days compared to where we are right now," he quipped, invoking the name of a president often regarded (at least by Republicans) as a spectacular failure.

But the sharpest criticism of the current president, Barack Obama, came not from Ryan but from the crowds gathered outside.

"It would mean the end of our country, I believe, as we know it," said Christine Fessey, a mother of five, when asked about the potential impact of a second Obama term. "Our children won't grow up in the country we all grew up in. People will become dependent on government and it will be the end of everything as we know it."

Monday was the end of a long holiday weekend, a time for many Americans to barbeque and celebrate the end of summer. But there was almost a sense of urgency among the thousands who gathered on the campus of East Carolina University for Ryan's speech. "I would say that it's time for America to wake up and move on," said Austin Wilgus, a retired army veteran from nearby Emerald Isle. "We can't afford four more years of the same."

Two new polls out today show North Carolina either deadlocked or narrowly leaning towards Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee. Several of the speakers at Monday's event held those polls up as evidence that this state — which voted for Obama in 2008 — is sliding back towards the Republican camp. Both sides consider North Carolina a must-win this year in a sign of its importance, the Democrats are holding their quadrennial convention here this week, just down the road in Charlotte.

"I think he's gonna win. I think everybody's getting a little tired of everything," said Kaitlyn Proctor, a student. "Things need to change. We just need to go back to more conservative Republican views, less government intervening in everything."

But do those poll numbers, and the enthusiasm at Monday's event, really translate into electoral success for Romney and Ryan? Missing from the overwhelmingly white crowd was anyone who could be termed a "swing voter." Greenville's population is 37 per cent black, according to the US Census Bureau, but there were perhaps a dozen African-Americans in attendance on Monday.

Outside the recreation centre there was talk about Obama's religion (several people insisted he is a Muslim) and his birthplace (Kenya, was the consensus). Later on, inside the venue, gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory warmed up the crowd by telling them he had some good news. "Obama died?" one man shouted, to raucous laughter and cheers from the people sitting around him.

This sort of vitriol goes over well with a staunchly Republican audience, but perhaps not as well with the majority of Americans who still believe Obama is basically a likable and decent man.

And even among the conservative Republicans at Monday's event, there was little enthusiasm for Romney himself. Robin Hayes, the chairman of the state Republican party, was effusive in his praise for Ryan — and for New Jersey governor Chris Christie, considered a front-runner for the presidential nomination in 2016 — but seemed less excited about the man at the top of the ticket.

"We really like him. We're very influenced by him. We think that he relates to us ordinary people better than anyone else running," said Howard Garner, a self-described Tea Party supporter, referring to Ryan.

Asked if Romney could be equally relatable, he grimaced. "I hope so."