WASHINGTON (NBC) - Neck and neck in Virginia: Six months out until Virginia's gubernatorial contest, Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli are locked in a close contest, according to a new NBC News/Marist poll. McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, gets the support of 43% of registered voters and Cuccinelli, the state's attorney general, gets 41%; 16% say they are undecided. That's a different result from a recent Washington Post poll of the race, which had the Republican leading by five percentage points. But a deeper look in this NBC/Marist survey, and it's clear Cuccinelli has a slight advantage. It starts with intensity: 53% of Cuccinelli backers strongly support him, versus 47% who express similar support for McAuliffe. What's more, among likely voters -- not always the best way to measure a contest this far out -- Cuccinelli has a slight edge over McAuliffe, 45%-42%. The race also features a clear gender gap, with McAuliffe leading among female registered voters (50%-34%) and Cuccinelli ahead with men (49%-34%).
*** Good news, bad news: The good news for McAuliffe is that he has plenty of room to grow (44% of voters say they're unsure/never heard of him, compared with 32% who say that about Cuccinelli). And the Republican Party is a potential drag for Cuccinelli: The GOP has a 37%-53% fav/unfav rating in the state, versus the Democratic Party's 44%-46% score. Yet so far, before any negative advertising begins, the poll doesn't show the party dragging Cuccinelli down -- his fav/unfav is 42%-27%. In addition, despite what some opinion leaders might believe, Cuccinelli doesn't have an ideological problem right now, either. Per the poll, 27% say he's too conservative, but a plurality of 39% think his ideology is just right. By comparison, 28% see McAuliffe as too liberal, and 33% say he's just right. And the two men essentially run even on candidate-quality questions, although Cuccinelli has a slight edge on some of them, including ones where Democrats usually outperform Republicans.
-- Who better understands people like yourself? (Cuccinelli 34%, McAuliffe 30%.)
-- Who do you trust more to do what's best for Virginia? (Cuccinelli 39%, McAuliffe 33%.)
-- Who is closer to you on social issues? (Cuccinelli 33%, McAuliffe 31%.)
-- Who cares more about the middle class? (McAuliffe 31%, Cuccinelli 30%.)
-- Who shares your values? (Cuccinelli 35%, McAuliffe 29%.)
*** Down on the gubernatorial field but upbeat on the state's direction: Strikingly (and perhaps not surprisingly), only 52% say they are satisfied with the field of gubernatorial candidates in Virginia. That's compared with 61% who say that it in New Jersey (more on that gubernatorial contest down below). That said, all the state's politicians are pretty popular. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's approval rating is at 61% (what scandal?); Cuccinelli's approval rating as attorney general is at 51%; and President Obama's approval in the state is at an equal 51%. What's more, if McDonnell were allowed to run for re-election, he'd lead McAuliffe by 15 points, 51%-36%. And a whopping 61% believe the state is headed in the right direction. Bottom line: The state is in good shape, and the Cuccinelli-McAuliffe contest could largely come down to which candidate can do a better job of selling that he would follow the Warner-Kaine-McDonnell path -- the conservative attorney general or the former DNC chair? It's clear voters don't really want change. It's why when you look at this survey, everything points to the GOP holding the slight advantage as the party in power.
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