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A lot on the line in Virginia as governor race heats up

If history is any guide, Ken Cuccinelli should be cruising to victory in Virginia's governor race. The party that controls the White House has lost the governo
VA Gubernatorial Candidate Ken Cuccinelli - 09/24/2013
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee for governor, answers questions from members of the press after addressing former Virginia...

If history is any guide, Ken Cuccinelli should be cruising to victory in Virginia's governor race.

The party that controls the White House has lost the governor's mansion in every election here since 1977.  The opposition research file on Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe is inches thick. And many establishment Democrats still have lingering doubts about picking McAuliffe in the first place.

But with less than six weeks until voters head to the polls in the crucial swing state vote, Cuccinelli is behind.

His last best shot to turn things around: the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce debate Wednesday night, moderated by The Daily Rundown host and NBC Political Director Chuck Todd.

Cuccinelli’s demographic dilemma

For Cuccinelli, history might be on his side, but the future is not. In a rapidly changing Virginia, no candidate can win without women, minorities or independents. And so far, Cuccinelli isn’t carrying any of those groups.

An NBC poll released Tuesday showed just how marked the shift is:  McAuliffe may have only a narrow five point lead in the overall contest, but he’s leading with women by 18 points. McAuliffe narrowly leads among independents, 36%-34%.

Cuccinelli will have to seize the debate Wednesday night to convince these groups he's a candidate who speaks to them. Former Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, was able to cobble together an impressive coalition of voters just a year after Republicans had been trounced. In 2009, he won women by eight points, and independents more than two-to-one. Even as he’s been embroiled in a federal investigation over accepting $140,000 in gifts and loans from a controversial donor, his approval rating in the state still stands at 55%.

But Cuccinelli is getting only 63% of McDonnell’s 2009 voters. Some Republicans seem to be turning to Libertarian nominee Robert Sarvis, who drew a surprising 8% in the NBC poll. Among voters who support Sarvis, 62% approve of McDonnell, while 75% disapprove of Cuccinelli.

“He’s not getting any independents, and he’s even having trouble holding Republicans,” former GOP Rep. Tom Davis, who represented Northern Virginia for over a decade in Congress, told MSNBC. “We have to make our coalition larger.”

Cuccinelli's numbers plummeted this summer as Democrats trashed Republican groups on the air, releasing attack ads about Cuccinelli's social policy stances. One last week featured a Norfolk OB-GYN saying she was “offended” Cuccinelli wanted “to make all abortion illegal, even in cases of rape and incest, even to protect a woman’s health. I want a governor who’s focused on schools and creating jobs, not someone who wants to do my job. Who’s Ken Cuccinelli to interfere in the lives of women across Virginia?”

While McAuliffe’s favorability ratings have actually risen over the summer, Cuccinelli’s negatives have risen 20 points, with 47% holding an unfavorable opinion of the attorney general.

Cuccinelli tried to play up his softer side early in the campaign, hoping to close the gender gap. His first television ad featured his wife, Tiero, highlighting her husband’s work to help the mentally ill and to curb sexual assaults. Another ad featured the story of an African-American man he helped free from jail, spending 27 years in prison after being wrongly accused of rape.

Can Obamacare move the needle?

But whether Cuccinelli will tack to the center--or even left--on Wednesday night is unclear.

In recent months and weeks, he's played to the conservative base, tapping into the anti-Obamacare debate that has energized the party. At a fundraiser last week with Marco Rubio, the Florida senator said electing Cuccinelli would send a message ahead of 2014.

Also last week, Cuccinelli’s supporters showcased him at a rally on one of their holiest days: Constitution Day, where a local official introduced him as “Tea Party before there was a Tea Party.”

Cuccinelli offered up plenty of red meat to the 200 people gathered at a strip mall in the Northern Virginia suburb of Sterling. But many in the crowd were there to see one of their heroes--conservative radio host Mark Levin, who broadcasts his show from Virginia. Levin vowed that conservatives would turn out to block McAuliffe.

Blasting Democratic ads that depicted Cuccinelli as a “shadowy” figure who wanted to be in voters' bedrooms, Levin quipped that “maybe Mr. McAuliffe is confusing Ken Cuccinelli with his friend Bill Clinton.”

“You want talk about the government in the bedroom? Let’s talk about Obamacare,” said Levin.  “McAuliffe supports Obamacare 100%, but with one caveat--he doesn’t think it goes far enough.”

Steve Brannon, 57, who'd traveled from Frederick County to hear Cuccinelli and Levin speak, said he admired the GOP nominee’s never wavering from his principles, and thought that would appeal to independents.

“I think his base is fired up, and I think they’re fired up because of what they see going on around us,” said Brannon. “They see the president willy-nilly deciding which laws he’s going to enforce, and they see people like Terry McAuliffe who has a long history of working with the Democrats to push those types of agendas, and I hope and pray people are tired of that."

McAuliffe’s challenge: Shoring up his business credentials

Democrats know they can’t be complacent, although of course they're pleased with the latest poll numbers. McAuliffe, a former DNC chairman who was once called the “First Friend” to the Clintons, brings plenty of baggage. An unimpressive 2009 race didn’t endear him to many Democrats in the state, either. But he doggedly kept up his party outreach and was rewarded by not having to face a primary opponent.

In the meantime, McAuliffe worked to bolster his business credentials, boasting about his work early on in an electric car company, Green Tech. Though he quietly stepped down as chairman of the company last year and rarely mentions it on the trail, he’s faced criticism over choosing to locate the plant in Mississippi instead of Virginia, and questions about how many cars and jobs the plant actually created; his former company faces an SEC investigation into the issue of providing visas to potential foreign investors.

The latest negative headline came last week, after the Northern Virginia Technology Council’s Tech PAC endorsed Cuccinelli over McAuliffe. The Washington Post reported that McAuliffe allies scrambled to stop the endorsement. The Post painted an unflattering picture of the meetings that led to the endorsement of Cuccinelli.

One board member told the Post, “Terry was his normal, flamboyant self...He didn’t want to get pinned down to any details. He didn’t give any details. He was all about jobs, jobs, jobs — ‘I’m just going to take care of the situation when the time comes. I’m just going to do it.’ It was all [expletive].” 

Cuccinelli quickly put up a TV spot, painting McAuliffe as “not serious,” using the quotes from the Post story against clips of McAuliffe taking shots of rum on MSNBC’s Morning Joe after the 2008 presidential primaries.

“Ken has a lot more credibility, and I think that his integrity is a lot better, said James Withers, a Virginia Beach voter who came out to the Sterling rally. He just moved to Virginia last year from Pennsylvania, and said he considers himself a liberal Republican who has voted for Clinton and even Obama in 2008.

“Ken doesn’t seem to be big-business oriented, he seems to be more of the people,” said Withers. “I just don’t feel comfortable with Terry.”

What’s at stake

The debate gives both a chance to speak directly to the voters--and each other. It’s only the second televised debate of three likely debates, and the two haven’t met since the end of July.

While both campaigns may say they want this to be about the issues, the race has been mostly about the outsized personalities of the two polarizing candidates.

"Each of them just wants to drive down the negatives on the other because they don’t want to promote the positive very much,” Democratic pollster Peter Brodnitz, who polled for McAuliffe’s 2009 race and Kaine’s successful 2012 race, told MSNBC.

“If the functioning argument against Terry McAuliffe is that he’s not a serious person, that’s easy enough for McAuliffe to deal with in the way he presents himself,” Brodnitz said of McAuliffe's debate expectations.

“McAuliffe is obviously not strong on the experience side or knowledge,” said Davis, adding that the “debate will be very important for McAuliffe to hold his own” to combat the unserious narrative Republicans are pushing after the NVTC endorsement debacle.

Cuccinelli’s campaign on Tuesday, in a memo downplaying recent polls showing them behind, again drove home the narrative that Cuccinelli would be the adult on the stage and that McAuliffe's numbers would eventually collapse.

“Despite being outspent significantly all summer and into September, the fact that Ken is still hanging around within striking distance speaks to the weakness of Terry McAuliffe as a serious and capable candidate, and the more people hear Ken’s message and plan to create 58,000 more jobs, the more receptive and inclined they are in voting for him,” Cuccinelli consultant Chris LaCivita wrote. “Tomorrow night, when voters see both men on the stage without their handlers, they are going to see that there’s only one candidate who is prepared and ready to lead them for the next four years: Ken Cuccinelli.”

McAuliffe’s campaign, also downplaying their own expectations, said in their own memo that “Cuccinelli has perfected a performance that is designed to mask an agenda that is far outside the Virginia mainstream.”

“While Cuccinelli will certainly deliver that performance again Wednesday, the difference in this election is that voters already know much more about Cuccinelli,” wrote McAuliffe communications director Brennan Bilberry.