September 19, 2013

In the Virginia gubernatorial race, just when you think the Democratic (Terry McAuliffe) or Republican candidate (Ken Cuccinelli II) is pulling away, a series of events suggests the leader isn’t ready for prime time. As political watchers in Virginia say these days, neither one of them should win this.

Terry McAuliffe (Maddie Meyer/The Washington Post)
Terry McAuliffe (Maddie Meyer/The Washington Post)

Polling before this week showed McAuliffe stretching out his lead to as much as ten points. Then a Quinnipiac poll showed his lead cut in half in a month, down to 3 points. Next, a Roanoke College poll released today shows McAuliffe with a statistically insignificant lead of one point. Has something changed or is this just polling “noise” within the margin of error?

Before they start popping champagne corks over at the Cuccinelli campaign HQ they should note that the previous Roanoke College poll had Cuccinelli up by 6 points, translating his current position into a 7-point nosedive since the summer. Polling in this race is made more difficult because both candidates have high negatives and a large segment (as much as 22 percent of the electorate) is still undecided.

With all the caveats, McAuliffe has had several stumbles of late which reinforce the image of a too-slick-by-half political operator.

He’s stumbled on abortion, falsely contending he has some power to keep open abortion clinics that don’t meet health standards.

He had a poor showing with a group of Northern Virginia technology execs, just the sort of voters whom his business background might appeal to. The Post reports that a weak appearance contributed to him losing an endorsement (“some members of TechPAC board’s said McAuliffe came off as ill-prepared and superficial in his interview with the group”). Moreover, McAuliffe’s glibness is becoming a problem:

The speeches themselves fed into the narrative that emerged from the TechPAC flap: that McAuliffe is breezy while Cuccinelli grasps the details and gravity of the job. Both candidates had 45 minutes to address the group. Cuccinelli gave a 39-minute address heavy on wonky details. McAuliffe gave his standard 16-minute stump speech.

Cuccinelli meanwhile defused a potentially damaging situation. The Post reported:

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II on Wednesday condemned an anti-Semitic joke told by a Republican activist who spoke before him at a rally this week.

“I wasn’t there, but I heard about it that night, and, obviously, I think it was inappropriate and certainly unfortunate and something, if I’d heard it at the time, I’d have spoken to right there,” Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee for Virginia governor, told reporters after a candidates’ forum in Richmond on Wednesday morning.

That was as quick and sure footed a move as he has taken in a bumpy campaign.

In sum, Cuccinelli is not leading in a single poll since July and small variations in polling may not be meaningful. Cuccinelli’s negatives remain sky-high. In the Roanoke College poll with a one-point spread, Cuccinelli has an astounding 28 percent favorable, 42 percent unfavorable rating.

That said, voters clearly aren’t sold on McAuliffe. It often seems that whomever the voters heard or saw last is the one they dislike the most. Maybe the candidate who stays out of sight most effectively until the November election will ultimately win it.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.