Former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe and Virginia Attorney General Republican Ken Cuccinelli (AP/Getty Images)

Ken Cuccinelli II’s campaign likes to portray Terry McAuliffe as a Syracuse native whose outsize political ambition drove him to eye gubernatorial races in Florida and New York before he decided to run in Virginia.

“Unlike McAuliffe,” the Republican’s spokeswoman said at one point, “Cuccinelli is a product of Virginia.” Cuccinelli has hammered the same theme, saying his Democratic opponent “didn’t show any interest in Virginia until he wanted to run for governor.”

In a contentious campaign five months before the election, Republicans are questioning McAuliffe’s connection to the state even as seismic demographic shifts have made defining an authentic Virginian a near-herculean task.

If the transient bureaucrat has replaced the tobacco farmer as the face of the commonwealth, the state’s gubernatorial race has become a test of whether Republicans can effectively cast McAuliffe as “an undocumented Virginian,” as state political analyst Robert Holsworth puts it.

Over the past century, the percentage of native-born residents has dropped at a faster pace in Virginia than anywhere else in the country. Today, a little less than half of Virginian’s population was born in the Old Dominion.

More Post coverage of the race for Virginia governor.

“A case could be made that an authentic Virginian these days is someone born outside of Virginia,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “Different parts of the state would have different ideas about what is authentic.”

Despite the state’s evolution, Republicans are pressing the notion that McAuliffe is a “Virginia outsider,” as Cuccinelli described him during his acceptance speech at the recent state Republican convention. Like McAuliffe, and even Cuccinelli, four of Virginia’s past five governors were born outside the commonwealth. But unlike those governors, McAuliffe’s political résuméin Virginia is largely limited to a previous and unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign.

Timothy M. Kaine, who was born in Minnesota, was mayor of Richmond before becoming lieutenant governor, governor and then a U.S. senator. Mark R. Warner, an Indiana native, ran unsuccessfully for the Senate, managed a gubernatorial campaign and was chairman of Virginia’s Democratic Party before becoming governor and then a senator. California-born George Allen was a state delegate before being elected congressman, governor and senator.

In McAuliffe’s case, said Pat McSweeney, a former chairman of Virginia’s Republican Party, “the issue is whether he understands Virginia and Virginia government. I have no evidence that he understands either.”

“He may have lived here,” McSweeney said, “but if all you’ve done is focus on affairs outside of the state, you don’t really know the state.”

McAuliffe’s campaign makes a virtue of the candidate not having climbed Virginia’s political ladder. “It’s no secret that Terry isn’t a Richmond insider,” Josh Schwerin, a spokesman, wrote in an e-mail, describing McAuliffe as a “fresh face” with “a fresh approach.”

Yet, McAuliffe’s campaign also seeks to neutralize the argument that he’s an outsider. At campaign appearances, the candidate often tells audiences about his travels around Virginia and his visits to the state’s community colleges — 18 of 23, by his recent count.

In his first television ad, after mentioning that he started his first business as a teenager (in unmentioned Syracuse), McAuliffe says, “My wife, Dorothy, and I have lived in Virginia for over 20 years, and here we’ve raised five children of our own.”

Citing examples of McAuliffe’s civic involvement in Virginia, Schwerin said the candidate is on the board of a foundation that assists families of injured and deceased police officers and firefighters. He also pointed to McAuliffe’s advocacy on behalf of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s transportation bill during the last legislative session, saying he called lawmakers to help “build momentum for passage.”

American politics is replete with examples of candidates seizing opportunities in states in which they have not resided for nearly as long as McAuliffe has lived in Virginia. Robert F. Kennedy, searching for a state to launch his political career after serving as attorney general, captured a U.S. Senate seat in 1965 in New York. Thirty-five years later, Illinois-born Hillary Rodham Clinton became New York’s junior senator. Elizabeth Dole’s opponents called her a carpetbagger when she returned to her native North Carolina to run for the Senate in 2002.

There are also examples of successful politicians who had no government experience before taking office. Ronald Reagan was an actor before becoming California’s governor. Michael R. Bloomberg was a business tycoon before running for mayor of New York. Jesse Ventura was a professional wrestler before becoming a mayor in Minnesota and then governor.

“There are so many different paths you can take to the executive mansion,” said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University. “I don’t believe there is any particular path that is a more reliable predictor of success.”

In Virginia for five decades, Harry F. Byrd Sr. — a conservative Democrat who served as governor and a senator — ruled state politics, hand-picking those who ascended into office. To get elected, “you had to be one of us: speak with a Virginia accent and have the right political beliefs,” said Peter Wallenstein, a Virginia Tech history professor. “You had to be a white male, and you had to come from the elite.”

Since Byrd’s death, voters have chosen governors born outside Virginia, including Chuck Robb (Arizona). The current governor was born in Philadelphia. Cuccinelli was born in New Jersey. His parents moved to Virginia a year later.

“There is this new political reality that cuts the requirements that you have lineage that goes back generations in Virginia and have been properly groomed through the system,” Wallenstein said. “The new reality is a far more open universe.”

Virginia’s shifting demographics have altered the state’s politics, the most dramatic evidence being that a majority of voters supported a Democratic presidential candidate in 2008 for the first time in 44 years.

Over the past decade, a preponderance of the state’s new residents — just over 75 percent — have been minorities. The state’s Hispanic population grew by more than 90 percent during that period and now accounts for more than 7 percent of residents.

In 1970, more than 65 percent of Virginia residents were born in the commonwealth, a figure that has dropped to 49 percent. Forty years ago, the population of Northern Virginia accounted for 12 percent of the state. Now a third of the state’s residents live there.

“Virginia is America in miniature,” Farnsworth said. “You’ve got the liberal northeastern part of the state. You’ve got a sun coast in the Hampton Roads area. There’s an industrial heartland and a Bible Belt. You have a rural mountain community. It has everything but California.”

As a result, he said, a Virginian is not nearly as simple to define as, say, a denizen of Vermont. Yet, Republicans are pushing McAuliffe as an outsider, he said, because the campaign “is already notable for its negativity. We’re talking about October-level hostility, and it’s only May.”

“Both candidates are looking for anything they can possibly say that will undermine the opposition,” Farnsworth said.

Even within Republican circles, disagreement exists over whether to make an issue out of McAuliffe’s ties to Virginia.

Boyd Marcus, a Republican political consultant who advises Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, said McAuliffe’s relationship with former president Bill Clinton and his history as a national Democratic operative are more fruitful targets.

“He has gone through a lot of Democratic and nonpartisan meetings over the past four years,” Marcus said. “He has been around the state. He stayed after he lost.”

Among the first to cast McAuliffe as a political interloper were his fellow Democrats, including Brian Moran, with whom he competed for the party’s nomination in 2009. At the time, Moran told a reporter that there was “no reason to perceive” McAuliffe “as a Virginia Democrat.”

“He’s had little involvement — if any — not only in Virginia politics but in Virginia governance,” he said then.

Moran laughed when reminded of his past criticism of McAuliffe. “Four years ago was different,” he said, explaining that McAuliffe had recently left the Democratic National Committee. “He has worked extremely hard to dispel any concerns that people might have regarding his Virginia connections.”

In recent months, Cuccinelli’s campaign has seized on McAuliffe’s fundraising trips to revisit past speculation over his purported interest in running for governor in Florida or New York, despite no hard evidence of his seriousness.

A tweet posted recently by Cuccinelli’s campaign described McAuliffe as “the out-of-state candidate, with out-of-state money.”

When McAuliffe attended a fundraiser in Upstate New York, Cuccinelli's Web site said, “After contemplating a bid to become the governor of New York — his home state — Terry McAuliffe instead decided to just milk his Syracuse pals to fund his gubernatorial campaign in Virginia.”

Schwerin, McAuliffe’s campaign spokesman, said in an e-mail that “over the years, some friends asked him to consider” running for governor elsewhere. But, Schwerin added, “Virginia is where he’s raised his family for 21 years and where he wants his children to stay.”