Terry McAuliffe has spent four years rallying Virginia Democrats around his latest gubernatorial bid, but a new poll shows he still faces an uphill climb with voters who don't know him or who think his Republican opponent, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, is better prepared to be governor.
In the first poll done since Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling announced that he would not enter the race as an independent, Quinnipiac University found that Cuccinelli and McAuliffe remain in a statistical tie, with Cuccinelli getting 40 percent to McAuliffe's 38 percent.
But the poll released Wednesday also shows that Cuccinelli holds a distinct advantage over McAuliffe in name recognition, and his work as a state senator and as the state's top lawyer has 44 percent of voters believing that Cuccinelli has the experience to be governor. And while McAuliffe is already portraying Cuccinelli as a Tea Party extremist, only 29 percent of voters think the Republican is too conservative.
In contrast, just 28 percent said McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, is experienced enough to succeed Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell.
McAuliffe has lived in the state for two decades, he ran unsuccessfully for governor four years ago, and he has been traveling the state in preparation for another statewide run. But he's still relatively unknown in Virginia. Six in 10 said they didn't know enough about him to have an opinion.
It may be a tough way to start the race, but it gives McAuliffe plenty of room to grow, said Paul Goldman, a longtime Democratic strategist in Virginia.
"He can fill in that gap," Goldman said. "Cuccinelli can't change his image with people who have a set opinion of him right now. But Terry has a bunch of people who don't know who he is, and he can affect their opinion."
Cuccinelli isn't necessarily a household name either. About 44 percent didn't know enough about him to have an opinion. Among those who did have an opinion, 30 percent viewed Cuccinelli favorably, and a third said his political philosophy is "just right."
"The general public does not see the GOP candidate as a far-right kind of guy as some both inside and outside the Republican Party have suggested," said Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown. "It would not be surprising to see McAuliffe try to pin the ideologue label on Cuccinelli, but as of now, the label does not stick."
The governor's race has been virtually tied since last November, when McAuliffe held a 41 percent to 37 percent lead, and neither side is running television ads. But both campaigns expect the race to take off once the battle shifts to the airwaves.
"Whatever public polling is out right now reinforces that this race really hasn't begun yet in people's minds," said Ellen Qualls, a senior adviser to McAuliffe. "Both candidates have a really long way to go in telling their stories."