Ohio's floating voters get ready to make their decisive swing

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For both candidates, the road to the White House goes through the Buckeye State – and it's still in play. Nikhil Kumar reports

Jim Lynch is the person President Obama and Mitt Romney have been fighting over. An unshaven, down-on-his-luck resident of Canton, the seat of Stark County, the largest swing county in the battleground state of Ohio, Mr Lynch was on his way in to the Salvation Army outpost in downtown Canton to have a free meal. "It's been really bad the last four years," he said, finishing off his cigarette by the door.

He's no Republican. "I heard he [Romney] is gonna kill Medicare and Medicaid and I'm middle aged. I'm getting to the age where I might need that stuff," he said, cracking a smile.

And the President? "I'm not enthusiastic or anything like that," was the curt reply. "I didn't know who to vote for," he says, shuffling his feet in the biting cold. "It's not like it's been good. I don't want to be coming here."

In the final stretch of what is predicted to be one of the closet electoral contests in recent times – "toss-up" and "down to the wire" are among the most frequently rehashed clichés – Ohio is one of a clutch of states that, by all accounts, will decide who gets to call the white mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home come January. A final pre-election poll from the University of Cincinnati today found the President and Mr Romney at 50 per cent to 48.5 per cent – or within the margin of error.

"I've decided ... I think," says Mr Lynch, adding that he's leaning towards voting Democrat. "I decided the other day. It was good the way he stopped talking about the election and brought the country together." Over Superstorm Sandy? "Yeah," he said, nodding before going through the door.

The President will be hoping that Mr Lynch is still nodding in his direction when he casts his ballot tomorrow.

In Ohio, Mr Lynch's county has backed the winner of the national polls 10 out of 12 times since 1964. And even when it has erred – the last instance occurred in 2004, when John Kerry took Stark – it was by the slenderest of margins. Mr Kerry carried Stark with 50.6 per cent of the vote; President Bush took Ohio with 50.8 per cent.

"We have our reputation. There's never been a Republican president who hasn't won Ohio and they say the way it goes in Stark is the way [it goes] in Ohio," Bob Brewster, a local florist, said. Firmly in the Romney camp – "I like his business forte" – he felt people had largely made up their mind on the eve of the poll.

"There's very few [people] that I know that are undecided," he said yesterday. Based on his encounters in recent days, Mr Brewster guessed that perhaps 10 per cent of the local population was still undecided. "But they'll still be making up their mind when they go down to that polling booth," he said.

Robert Capestrain, who runs a local jewellery shop, agreed. A former Stark County commissioner, he was holding court yesterday morning at a table in the back of the Arcadia Grill. Among those joining him at breakfast time was Tommy Sheridan, a former local election official. Both are confirmed Democrats.

"There's a lot of people who don't want to verbalise what they feel. You get a call asking you who you're voting for, and you don't know who it is," Mr Capestrain said.

"My big concern," Mr Sheridan said, "is are people going to be able to vote without any problems?" He was referring in part to the argument over early voting. Yesterday in Canton, the queue for early ballots was already stretching down to the end of the block outside the local Board of Elections, on the other side of downtown from the Arcadia Grill.

It has been thus throughout the weekend, with people waiting hours in the cold to have their say. Democrats have been grumbling about Ohio's Republican Secretary of State who, they claim, has been attempting to cut short the time that voters have to cast early ballots after a federal court overturned a state law and reinstated early voting on the final three days ahead of today's election.

According to the Associated Press, more than 1.6 million Ohioans had voted by early yesterday. Of these, 29 per cent were Democrats and 23 per cent were Republicans. The independent 47 per cent could decide the election. And with questions already being raised over the early voting regime and provisional ballots, which are counted after tonight's polls close and may been needed to declare a winner if the result is too close to call, many fear a post-election legal battle could be in store in critical arenas such as Ohio. "Oh it's close. It'll be close," Mr Brewster said.

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