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Top 2013 race to watch? Virginia governor

Governors races in the Virginia have often captured national attention in off-year elections and the looming showdown between Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Demo

Governors races in the Virginia have often captured national attention in off-year elections and the looming showdown between Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe will be no different.

But while past races have shown early glimpses of brewing national political trends, this year’s Virginia governor’s contest -- between what party strategists on both sides know are deeply flawed nominees -- may tell us more about the state of each party than what may happen in 2014 or even 2016. An NBC News/Marist poll from earlier this month showed both men locked in a tight contest.

Since 1973, Virginia has elected a governor opposite the president's party in the year immediately after a White House race. In 2005, it was Tim Kaine’s victory that showed some of the first signs of the turning tide against the Bush administration, with the Democratic nominee running one of the earliest ads criticizing the sitting president, who had just easily won re-election a year earlier.

But Kaine also showed Democrats how to successfully engage suburban voters and that talking about religion shouldn’t be an anathema. The next year, Democrats took control of the House, running candidates in similar molds in districts that had previously perplexed them.

But four years later, it was a different story. In 2008, Virginia had just voted for a Democrat for president for the first time since 1964, and the party in the Old Dominion was on the upswing.

Then, in 2009 Republican nominee Bob McDonnell campaigned on a successful platform of boosting the economy -- with the rhyming slogan “Bob’s for jobs!” -- and cruised to an 18-point win. The next year, three Virginia Democrats would be similarly swept out of office as the GOP wave turned over 63 House seats.

Now, in 2013, party strategists from both sides may be looking to clues for how next year’s midterms or even the next presidential election may turn out. But in Virginia, the governor’s race shows more the pitfalls each party has to overcome

Republicans maneuvered to nominate Cuccinelli at a convention, ensuring his path over next-in-line Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling. But the unintended consequence of that decision was that activist E.W. Jackson got the No. 2 slot -- forcing Cuccinelli to confront social positions that Democrats are all too eager to point out but that he’d rather not emphasize.

McAuliffe, too, has to do more than run just run as the anti-Cuccinelli. Democrats privately know turnout levels from presidential years will dropoff, but the biggest question is how much. Cuccinelli’s supporters now seem more motivated to go to the polls, but McAuliffe has to motivate Obama voters to come out if he's going to win.

“Neither one should have any basis of winning,” said one unaligned Virginia Democratic strategist. “You can’t read too much into it, both sides are so flawed.”

There are other 2013 races that will be amusing sideshows, and shouldn’t be discounted. In the New York City mayoral race, Anthony Weiner could create an amazing political rehabilitation, or the Big Apple could elect an openly gay woman in the city’s council president Christine Quinn.  In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie looks poised for a romp where the GOP shouldn’t even be competitive on paper, but how cozy he gets with Democrats could impact his own 2016 standing with his own party. And in Boston, there’s be a new face leading City Hall for the first time in two decades.

But Virginia will undoubtedly be the most competitive -- and, consequently, the nastiest of the races this fall. Presidential hopefuls will flock to the commonwealth to stump for their standardbearer (some, possibly begrudgingly) and both parties will pour millions of dollars into the races.

At the end of the day, the race with two flawed candidates may be more about the demons each party has to confront with itself -- and emphasizing that candidates, and campaigns, do indeed matter.