Virginia gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe (D), left, and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R), participate in a debate in McLean on Wednesday. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

The Virginia gubernatorial contest is more than a race to the bottom, although it certainly is that. For Republicans looking toward 2016, it is a real-time test of the challenges a full-throated conservative will face in the swing states that decide presidential elections.

For many Virginians, Republican Ken Cuccinelli II and Democrat Terry McAuliffepresent a choice between two flawed and unattractive candidates who have spent much of their time tearing each other down. It is little wonder that voters are turned off.

But there are good reasons to pay attention. In each of the past nine gubernatorial elections, Virginians chose a candidate who represented the party that did not hold the White House. If that pattern is broken this year, Republicans will be asking why. Certainly the ethics scandal that has engulfed Gov. Robert F. McDonnell could be a reason. Another will be the GOP nominee’s background.

Cuccinelli made his reputation as one of his party’s most outspoken conservatives. As attorney general, he became a darling of tea party activists determined to shrink the size of government and of social and religious conservatives who favor an end to most legal abortion and oppose the movement to legalize same-sex marriage.

In his book “ The Last Line of Defense,” Cuccinelli explained his success as a politician this way: “I won not just because I had lots of committed supporters who worked hard for me, but because I didn’t compromise on first principles. Instead I explained them.” He said conservatives should “no longer be silent or shy” about expressing those views.

That is the same philosophy that has propelled a group of rebellious House Republicans to force the government to the brink of a partial shutdown and that could cause the government to default on its debt in a few weeks. It is the philosophy that has made Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who talked for more than 21 hours on the Senate floor last week to register his opposition to President Obama’s health-care law, a hero on the right.

Cuccinelli matches the profile of the kind of candidate whom many Republican activists wish their party would nominate for national office — someone authentically and unapologetically conservative and willing to fight for those ideas. To these conservatives, the past two Republican presidential nominees, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in 2012 and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in 2008, were deficient on both counts.

Cuccinelli appears to be in an uphill fight to win the governor’s seat. This past spring, a Washington Post poll showed him leading McAuliffe in a two-way race, 51 percent to 41 percent. Last week, a Post-Abt SRBI poll showed McAuliffe ahead, 49 percent to 44 percent. With libertarian Robert Sarvis added to the mix, McAuliffe led 47 percent to 39 percent. An NBC-Marist poll released last week showed McAuliffe leading 43 percent to 38 percent, with Sarvis at 8 percent.

The Post-Abt SRBI poll shows a huge gender gap. In the three-way matchup, Cuccinelli is winning among men by 10 points. But he trails McAuliffe among women by a whopping 27 points, 58 percent to 31 percent. Among likely voters, he trails McAuliffe by 24 points on the question of whom voters trust to handle issues of special concern to women.

Neither candidate is particularly well liked, but after the pounding by McAuliffe, Cuccinelli is viewed unfavorably by almost half of all Virginians. Among independent women, 57 percent rate Cuccinelli unfavorably, while 29 percent rate him favorably.

Against a stronger Democrat, Cuccinelli would be in even worse shape. McAuliffe is fighting to overcome criticism that he is little more than an exuberant salesman who doesn’t understand government and has repeatedly exaggerated his accomplishments. He faces his own ethics issues, with the car company he co-founded under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, sketched out the stakes for his party and, by implication, for those Republicans who may be thinking about running for president in 2016. “It may be a textbook example of how you resurrect the party and how you don’t,” he said. “I can’t talk as though McAuliffe has won, but it’s pretty clear that if you continually tack right, tack right, tack right, that it’s going to be increasingly difficult to win swing states.”

Many Republicans are privately worried about the trajectory of the contest, but some of them express the hope that Cuccinelli, with help from outside allies, will be able to shift the campaign away from personal considerations to issues that they think are fertile ground.

Still, the GOP nominee is likely to be hampered by his record for the duration of the campaign. When the two candidates debatedin Northern Virginia last week, it was clear that Cuccinelli knows he must try to rehabilitate his image. In doing so, he sounded less like the robust conservative of “The Last Line of Defense” and more like a candidate who realizes that the positions he has espoused in the past have become a liability and now wants to be seen as kinder and gentler.

Many Republicans have noted that Cuccinelli’s campaign stands in sharp contrast to the one run four years ago by McDonnell, who holds many of the same conservative positions as Cuccinelli yet found ways to appeal to suburban swing voters. As Ayres put it, “This is a case study of what happens when you do away with a primary and go to a convention and nominate a strongly ideological candidate in a swing state.”

The Virginia race has six more weeks left, and that’s is why it is too early to write its ending. But with the Republican Party engaged in a vigorous debate about how it should pursue its objectives and how its elected officials should present themselves to voters, the outcome in November could be felt far beyond the borders of the commonwealth.