So his message to all in Washington: "Let us have the means and options to chart our own path. Don't hamstring us with rules and regulations. And let people that are willing to go out to work take a chance, let them have the opportunity to do it. We don't need a big hand hovering over our head telling us what we can and cannot do."
If the recession spared oil and gas lands, Kaufmann, of Kunkletown, Pa., saw it coming in the gutter trade, specifically when he started noticing that nearly all of his customers' checks were drawn on home equity credit lines.
"How long do you think this is going to last?" he recalled asking his wife. "I said, 'I just did a homeowner, the wife lost her job, and without her job, he can't afford the mortgage.' That's when we started buckling down. I said, 'You know what? It's time.'
"What happened is, the banks overextended all these people. People were buying clothes, putting in in-ground pools, putting gutters up where they didn't need to be replaced. I was putting gutters up when people didn't need gutters. I would tell them. But they wanted to change the colors. You ride by those houses now and they either have three feet of grass or the windows are boarded up."
His gross income has been halved since 2006 and 2007. No cruises since he turned 60 five years ago.
Cruises aren't on the horizon for Cristian Eusebio, 20, either. He makes $10.50 an hour as a bank teller in Springdale, Ark. He lives at home with a father who works at a food-packaging plant that's been cutting staff and a mother who found work at a warehouse store. The family refinanced before their home mortgage ballooned, skipped a vacation to pay down a debt and pinched pennies.
"It could have gotten worse, but it got better because my mom got a job, my sister got a job and then later in high school, I got a job," he said. "It has gotten better, but I think it's just because more of us are working. Some of us pay one bill. The other one pays another."
In Atlanta, where she serves as event manager for her hotel, Ludlow puts no faith in Romney's ability to make the economy sound and offers less than ringing praise for the candidate she supports. "He may not personally be the smartest guy about the economy," she says of Obama, "but what I do appreciate is the fact that he knows when to listen to smarter people."
Her economic worries transcend politics of the moment. She ticks them off: "The long shift that we've had with the globalizing world, going from a manufacturing to a service economy. From a service economy to just a consumer economy, period, that buys more than it produces. And everybody having a job that can be done by a human being, but it's just more cost-effective to do it with a computer.
"All of those factors float around my head and keep me up some nights," she said. "The economy is (in) an incredible state of transition that we've never seen before. And nobody has any idea what it's going to look like. When the smoke clears, what are we going to be living in? And nobody seems to have an answer to that. Nobody knows. All you can do is put on a couple of Band-Aids here and try something there, and see what happens. And that makes me nervous."
If the recession played no favorites among the rich, the poor and those in between, the recovery did. Lost jobs and homes may not have come back but the stock market did, favoring those whose wealth resided in investments.
Carol Clemens, a 66-year-old retiree from Edmond, Okla., and member of the local chapter of an investing club, put money into Ford shares near the bottom of the market in 2009, sold some and has seen the value of the rest grow fivefold. That eased her rough patch. "In short, we're not better off than we were in 2007, but neither are we destitute, for which we give thanks," she said. She's leaning toward Romney.
But investments and politics ebb and flow. Of more concern is the nation's future. She's the mother of grown children who "are not as conscious of saving as we were at their ages," and of grandchildren who are entering higher education. She laments class divisions played up in the campaign — the stigmatization of the poor, the dissing of the rich — and thinks the country needs a deeper fix than any one leader can achieve.
"Americans have got to start taking full responsibility for our messes," she said. "We vote in ineffective politicians, we tolerate second-rate educational systems, we envy those who have worked to have more and resent those who burden our social services because they have great needs.
"I would hope that the next president would have the guts to call us on our blindness and narrow visions," said Clemens. "We have to regain our ability to stop, consider and give a damn if we are going to change things."
Woodward reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Michael Rubinkam, Dave Carpenter in Chicago, Matt Sedensky in West Palm Beach, Fla., Michael Sandler in Richmond, Va., Tom Krisher and Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit, Alex Veiga in Los Angeles, Matthew Brown in Billings, Mont., Jeannie Nuss in Little Rock, Ark., and Mark Jewell in Boston contributed to this report.