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MENTOR, Ohio – When you’re talking about battlegrounds in this presidential election, you can’t get any closer to the front lines than little Lake County in northeast Ohio, just two hours down the Thruway from Buffalo.

It may be the smallest county in the state, but if Ohio is a key to winning the presidency, as many believe, the pace is set by these fiercely independent voters of Lake County.

“It’s one of those counties that’s a good miniature look at the state,” said William Angel, professor emeritus at Ohio State University at Lima. “It’s a swing county, which seems to go whatever direction the state goes.”

That’s why President Obama made one of his last campaign stops here Saturday in Mentor, the county’s largest community.

That’s why every Republican presidential nominee since 1992 has stopped in Lake County to rally voters.

And that’s why it’s not unusual for Lake County households to be divided come Election Day.

“We’re split,” said Robert Dubbs, 63, a government worker who voted with his partner early Tuesday morning in Mentor. “I voted Republican, he voted Democrat.”

That’s how it seemed to go across Lake County’s towns and cities – from Mentor to Painesville to Madison – as Obama and his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, battled for this little piece of Ohio.

Who will the people of this county support?

“Romney,” said Deborah Hart, 58, a home health-care aide. “I don’t like Obama’s socialistic attitudes.”

“Obama,” said Bill McCall, 39, a union pipefitter from Mentor. “I’m a working man.”

“Romney,” said Chuck Bohana, 42, a salesman. “I don’t like the guy who is in office now. I don’t like his policies and I don’t like the direction he’s taking this country.”

With 100 percent of precincts reporting in Lake County, Romney won with 50 percent of the vote, or 55,813 votes, to Obama’s 48 percent and 53,528 votes. Statewide, with 54 percent of precincts reporting, Obama was leading Romney by 50 percent to 48 percent out of the 3.8 million votes counted as of late Tuesday.

Just east of Cleveland along 31 miles of Lake Erie shoreline, Lake County is home to some 230,000 residents, who count former President James A. Garfield as one of its most famous inhabitants.

The county is about 90 percent white and comprises mostly middle- to upper-middle-class households with a median income of nearly $55,000.

At 6 percent, the unemployment rate here is lower than the national average – another factor Lake County voters were weighing Tuesday.

“I think Ohio is better off than it was four years ago,” said Jonathan Vaughn, 40, a painter and Obama supporter from Painesville.

Lake County also has a knack for picking presidents.

Over the past half-century, Lake County voters sided with the winning candidate in every presidential election except one, said Dale Fellows, chairman of the Lake County Republicans.

“We’ve been a real bellwether for the presidential campaign going all the way back to 1960,” Fellows said.

It’s the independence of the voters that makes Lake County stand out.

A majority of active voters in Lake County – nearly 65 percent – are not affiliated with a party, according to Scott Daisher, director of the Lake County Board of Elections.

And while there are currently about 10,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats, those numbers can easily flip between election cycles, Daisher said.

In fact, George Warnock, a Republican voter since 1981, cast his ballot for Obama four years ago – and voted for the president again on Tuesday.

“I think there’s just too many differences between my thinking and [Romney’s] thinking,” said Warnock, 49, an environmental scientist.

George W. Bush won here in 2004. Obama narrowly won Lake County in 2008.

email: jrey@buffnews.com