Cuccinelli has responded by giving clearer marching orders to his staff, tightening his message focus on McAuliffe’s business background and — after initially resisting — apologizing for how he has handled $18,000 in gifts he received from Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr.
Several Republican officials and operatives outside the campaign, most of whom requested anonymity in order to be frank about the state of the race, said they believe Cuccinelli is down — but certainly not out. Both candidates remain unpopular, turnout is expected to be low, and the national environment is not favorable for President Obama or his fellow Democrats.
The question is whether Cuccinelli can use the remaining days to shift momentum in his favor.
“I think McAuliffe has a real advantage in the race,” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
Now that Labor Day has passed, Rothenberg said, voters’ “opinions are gelling. That doesn’t mean the race is over, but there is a significant burden now on Cuccinelli to change the trajectory. . . . He’s going to have to get a significant portion of the people who haven’t made up their minds yet.”
A Quinnipiac University poll released last month showed McAuliffe leading Cuccinelli among likely voters, 48 to 42 percent. Three other automated polls released this month showed McAuliffe ahead by similar margins.
Rothenberg and University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato both now rate the race as leaning in McAuliffe’s favor. A third prominent nonpartisan analyst, Charlie Cook, still considers it “something close to a 50-50 race.”
Chris LaCivita, a senior adviser to Cuccinelli, played down the importance of the latest numbers. Other Republicans say that Cuccinelli retains a key advantage over McAuliffe: a base of voters highly likely to vote and loyal to him personally, not just to his party.
“Everybody acknowledges it’s a close race and is probably going to continue to be a close race,” said Virginia Republican Party spokesman Garren Shipley. “In gubernatorial years, what matters is who shows up and what is the composition of the electorate.”
Other GOP veterans are more pessimistic.
One Northern Virginia Republican official said that the gifts controversy, which has prompted state and federal investigations into McDonnell and his family, has blunted the GOP’s best attack against McAuliffe and his history of business-related scandals.