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.
“My sense long ago was that the Cuccinelli campaign was going to make this about [McAuliffe] being not from here, and ethically challenged,” the official said. “Well, you can kiss ‘ethically challenged’ goodbye.”
A Republican from Richmond made a similar point: “The McDonnell situation has had a huge effect on the campaign.”
A third Republican with extensive Virginia campaign experience said he was concerned but not panicked. “I don’t think anyone’s really sounded the [alarm] yet, but I think chatter is not focused where it should be — on McAuliffe,” he said.
The state inspector general is investigating whether an assistant in Cuccinelli’s office gave improper legal help to energy companies battling with Southwest Virginia landowners over gas royalties.
At a campaign meeting this week at Cuccinelli’s Springfield headquarters, staffing shifts gave clearer divisions of responsibility to the team’s top three operatives, but people with knowledge of the meeting said the shifts fell short of the kind of wholesale shake-up that might suggest internal panic. The three are campaign manager Dave Rexrode, deputy campaign manager Meredith Wall and LaCivita. The meeting was first reported by the Virginian-Pilot.
While some Republicans outside the campaign viewed the meeting as a sign of unrest, LaCivita strongly dismissed that idea, portraying it as a standard post-Labor Day exercise. “Any notion that this represents anything other than that is just patently false,” LaCivita said.
Republicans lamented Cuccinelli’s fundraising disadvantage; through June 30, he had raised $7.7 million, while McAuliffe had raised $12.7 million. Fresh fundraising numbers are due Monday.
Cuccinelli had hoped to focus public attention on GreenTech, an electric car company that McAuliffe co-founded. GreenTech is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for its use of a special visa program to lure foreign investors. There is no evidence that McAuliffe himself, who resigned as the company’s chairman in December, is under investigation.In a memo on the state of the race issued Friday, McAuliffe spokesman Brennan Bilberry suggested the Cuccinelli team was becoming “shrill” and desperate.
“It is clear that the Cuccinelli campaign is seeing the same things in their internal polls that Virginians see in public polls: Terry’s position continues to strengthen while Cuccinelli’s position continues to slip as a result of his ethics scandals and extreme social agenda,” Bilberry wrote.