CLEVELAND -- The stakes for President Obama could not be higher in this liberal bastion, an economically hard-hit region in the nation's premier battleground where the incumbent needs a massive turnout to prevail on Nov. 6.

For Obama, this area is a firewall that could offset likely gains by Republican Mitt Romney throughout other stretches of Ohio -- but fault lines have emerged.

Early voting, touted as Obama's secret weapon in the Buckeye State, is down nearly 10 percent in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, compared to the same time in 2008. Even before Hurricane Sandy ushered in nasty rain, early turnout was lagging behind the benchmark it set four years ago, local election figures show.

Politically speaking, the failure to turn out a vote in this Democratic fortress is almost as good as casting a vote for Romney. And even while the number of Democrats voting early is down, there are indications that some of those who are voting are crossing over to Romney instead.

"I come from a Democratic family, a union family," said Dave Koler, an information technology program manager from North Royalton. "The first debate was a real swing for me. This might be the first time that I actually go Republican."

Koler doesn't feel like he's the only one.

"We had a lot of people who voted four years ago for Obama who I don't think are going to show up this time," he said.

In 2008, Obama won Cuyahoga County by 258,000 votes, just shy of his winning margin for the entire state. With Romney in better position in Ohio than the 2008 Republican contender, Sen. John McCain, Obama's turnout effort in Cuyahoga grows in importance, analysts said.

"It's the most important county for President Obama in the entire country," David Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Akron, said. "If he does not equal his totals there from 2008, that is a horrible omen for Election Day. He has to win by a 2-to-1 margin."

Obama has traveled repeatedly to Northeast Ohio, lavishing attention on the manufacturing sector and the auto industry he helped bailout. That attention did not go unnoticed by voters.

"People appreciate what he's done for the economy," said Richard Toohey, 51, of Brecksville. "I don't know if he did the best job highlighting his accomplishments early on, but of late, I've been surprised by all the yard signs and other symbols of support here for the president."

Both campaigns claim to have an edge in Ohio.

Obama senior strategist David Axelrod on Wednesday charged that Romney knew Ohio was "fading away" and that's why the Republican is trying to win votes in Democratic states like Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Still, Obama faces difficulties of his own in this Rust Belt swing state. He has to convince voters that he can relate to their economic worries without taking the blame for the lagging economy that is the source of their concerns.

"Vote early?" joked Edward Madden, of Cleveland, while walking through the downtown area on a gloomy Wednesday afternoon. "I wouldn't vote even if you paid me to. That's not the message I want to send -- 'You blew it, here's four more years.' "