Former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe and Republican Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II. (Elise Amendola/AP and Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II has an early lead over businessman Terry McAuliffe in their race for governor, a new Washington Post poll shows, even as most voters in the commonwealth have yet to engage in the nationally watched contest.

Six months before Election Day, Cuccinelli (R) has a slender 46 to 41 percent edge over McAuliffe (D) among all Virginia voters and a significant 51 to 41 percent lead among those who say they’re certain to cast ballots in November. But those numbers may change before then: The poll found that barely 10 percent say they are following the campaign “very closely” and that nearly half of the electorate says they’re either undecided or could change their minds.

With Virginia’s evolution into a swing state, the race is drawing intense scrutiny as the nation’s lone competitive November matchup so far. McAuliffe has not been able to assemble the coalition that has led Democrats to statewide victories. President Obama prevailed in 2008 and 2012, and Democratic U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Timothy M. Kaine won in recent years after running as consensus-building moderates and driving the base turnout.

Having never held office, McAuliffe is the lesser-known quantity in this year’s contest, giving both sides the opportunity to try to define him in coming months. Fully 70 percent of Virginia voters say they know “just a little” or “nothing at all” about him or his qualifications to be governor. Even 65 percent of Democrats know little about the party’s nominee.

There is also broad uncertainty about Cuccinelli — 52 percent of voters say they know little about his qualifications — but the public continues to give a more positive than negative assessment of his work as attorney general. About 54 percent of voters say that he has “high personal moral and ethical standards,” about triple the number saying that he does not.

More Post coverage of the race for Virginia governor.

Cuccinelli is up in the race because he has overwhelming support from the GOP base. Among all registered voters, he’s backed by 95 percent of Republicans, 73 percent of conservatives and 62 percent among white men.

By contrast, compared with Obama’s win seven months ago, McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, is badly underperforming among key Democratic constituencies he would need to prevail — young voters, women, African Americans and those in the vote-rich areas of Northern Virginia.

Among nonwhites, women

McAuliffe beats Cuccinelli by a big margin among nonwhite voters, 57 to 21 percent, but that is far from Obama’s tally of 83 to 16 percent in the state’s exit poll. Even state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) scored 76 percent among nonwhite voters in his unsuccessful 2009 gubernatorial bid.

McAuliffe and Cuccinelli are about evenly matched among female voters (Obama won women’s votes by nine percentage points), and the Democrat is lagging among younger voters, too. Obama crushed former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) by 19 points among voters under 40, but these voters divide 48 percent for Cuccinelli to 39 percent for McAuliffe.

Regionally, the governor’s contest is basically knotted up in Tidewater, an area Obama won handily last year. In the close-in District suburbs, the home turf of both McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, McAuliffe has the edge 52 to 34 percent. In the Northern Virginia exurbs, where Obama fought to a draw in November, it’s 48 percent for Cuccinelli and 38 percent for McAuliffe.

There also may be a smaller opportunity for a Democrat this year than in the presidential election. Throughout 2012 — and on Election Day — polls consistently showed more self-described Democrats than Republicans in the state; in the new poll, there is far greater parity in partisan self-identification.

Hope for McAuliffe

One potential positive for McAuliffe is that 45 percent of voters aren’t yet following the race closely. And McAuliffe does far better among those very closely tuned in than he does among those yet to pay much attention.

For some, it’s simply a matter of ideology. In a follow-up interview, Frederick Govoni, 60, a lawn-and-garden-supply salesman from Harrisonburg, said he would back Cuccinelli because he was more in sync with the Republican.

“He’s more conservative than McAuliffe, and when McAuliffe was head of the Democratic Party, I didn’t like some of his stances,” Govoni said.

Overall, 47 percent of registered voters approve of the job Cuccinelli has done as attorney general, while 34 percent disapprove. The numbers are close to those from a May 2011 Washington Post poll.

“He’s done a good job as attorney general,” said Darcy Knox, 51, the owner of a mobile-home park in Staunton. “I think he’s tried to crack down on the abortion clinics, tried to get them up to speed with the hospitals.”

Both candidates have been grappling with controversies. Last week, a judge allowed Cuccinelli to recuse himself from prosecuting embezzlement charges against Todd Schneider, the former chef at the governor’s mansion. The case has focused scrutiny on gifts given to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his family from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., chief executive of the dietary supplement firm Star Scientific.

Cuccinelli also has received more than $18,000 in gifts from Williams — he failed to disclose $5,000 worth until last month — and he initially failed to disclose stock he owned in Star Scientific, which is suing the state in a tax dispute.

Just 9 percent of Virginians say they are closely following news about Star Scientific’s gifts and political contributions to state lawmakers. (The question was asked generally, not in specific reference to anything related to Cuccinelli.)

McAuliffe, meanwhile, has faced persistent questions about GreenTech, the electric car firm he founded. McAuliffe, who quietly resigned as the firm’s chairman in December, has been asked to defend the company’s decision to open a factory in Mississippi rather than in Virginia.

Uncertainty about McAuliffe also is evident here: 45 percent of voters say he has high personal moral and ethical standards, 14 percent say he does not and 41 percent say they have no opinion on the question.

David Volz, 54, an unemployed information technology director who lives in Arlington County and said he is an independent, is treating the contest as a referendum on Cuccinelli.

“I’ve not really been too big a fan of Terry McAuliffe’s,” said Volz, who is aware of the Democrat’s controversies, including those related to his fundraising at the DNC. “But there’s no way in the world I could vote for Cuccinelli. Cuccinelli is just far too conservative for me.”

The economy and jobs are the dominant issues in the race — 45 percent of registered voters volunteer that those are the biggest factors in their votes, and Cuccinelli holds an 18-point lead among these voters. No other subject cracked the double digits.

Harry Wilkinson, 40, a music teacher from Chantilly, is backing McAuliffe because of his positions on issues including abortion, gun rights and health care.

“I think Terry McAuliffe is really confronting the issues that Democrats are concerned with,” Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson also said he feels as if the commonwealth is more divided than usual, by region and party. “I think Northern Virginia and southern Virginia are farther apart than they’ve ever been,” he said.

Overall, 45 percent of Virginia voters say they are satisfied with the choice between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, while 40 percent say they wish someone else were running. Few of those in either camp described themselves as “very enthusiastic” in their support.

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) has said he won’t enter the race as an independent, but he has until June 11 to submit signatures to get on the November ballot.

In a three-way contest, the poll shows, Bolling gets the support of 15 percent of registered voters and 13 percent of likely voters. The data show Bolling siphoning votes about equally from the two sides.

Patrick Johnson, 41, a self-described independent who teaches online college courses in Christiansburg, is a tepid McAuliffe supporter. But the idea of a three-way race intrigues him.

“If Bolling comes in, I would definitely have to consider Bolling,” Johnson said.

Mike Salyer, 62, a retired state government worker from Yorktown, is a Cuccinelli backer who also wishes he had more candidates to choose from. But he’s not a big fan of Bolling’s, either.

“I wish there was someone else in the race,” Salyer said. “Just like I wished there was someone else in the last two presidential races.”

The Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone April 29 to May 2 among a random sample of 1,000 adults in Virginia, including 887 registered voters and users of both conventional and cellular phones. The results among registered voters have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points.

Cohen is director of polling for Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media. Capital Insight pollsters Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement and Washington Post staff writers Fredrick Kunkle and Errin Whack contributed to this report.