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Virginia voters split on McDonnell’s trustworthiness

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New poll numbers show Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's popularity plummeting among Virginia voters, even as the GOP's gubernatorial nominee began running an ad Thursday distancing himself from the man he hopes to replace.

Thirty-four percent of Virginia voters view Mr. McDonnell favorably, compared with 35 percent who view him unfavorably, according to a Quinnipiac University survey released Thursday.

Just three months ago, 40 percent of Virginia voters viewed the governor favorably, and 23 percent saw him unfavorably.

The sharp decline comes amid an unfolding scandal involving gifts given by a wealthy Virginia businessman and political donor to Mr. McDonnell and his family.

"Virginia voters are not giving Gov. Bob McDonnell a ringing vote of confidence for his honesty and integrity," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "His approval rating and favorable/unfavorable ratio are a far cry from when the governor was admired for his job performance and liked by voters."

The poll numbers were released the same day the campaign of Republican Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II released an ad striking back at attacks by the campaign of Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

The ad explains that the attorney general was cleared by a Democratic prosecutor of violating any laws in connection with his accepting $18,000 in gifts — some of which he forgot to disclose — from the same donor causing problems for Mr. McDonnell.

But the ad goes on.

"Cuccinelli personally launched the investigation into Bob McDonnell and called for immediate reform to strengthen ethics laws," it said. "Those are the facts."

The statement comes as Mr. Cuccinelli appears to be trying to distance himself from the governor's troubles, even as a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday showed him losing ground to Mr. McAuliffe, 48 percent to 42 percent. During a debate last month, Mr. Cuccinelli said Mr. McDonnell should think about resigning.

But the poll released Thursday also showed that voters still approve of the way Mr. McDonnell is handling his job.

A plurality of voters — 47 percent to 39 percent — approve of Mr. McDonnell's performance, up slightly from last month's 46 percent approval rating in which 37 percent disapproved. Mr. McDonnell's approval ratings had been in the low 50s in the early part of the year until they dipped below that threshold in May.

"The fact that he gets a thumbs-up for his job performance, but a split on favorability, indicates that to some degree voters seem able to separate their views of him personally and their evaluation of his ability to run the state," Mr. Brown said. "But as the questions about his and his family's relationship with a prominent campaign donor continue to swirl, he will have a difficult time pushing his numbers up."

The survey of 1,374 registered voters was conducted from August 14 to 19 and has a margin of error of 2.6 percentage points.

Thirty-two percent of those surveyed are self-identified Democrats, compared with 22 percent who say they're Republicans and 37 percent who say they're independent.

The governor has been dogged in recent months by news that Jonnie R. Williams Sr., CEO of nutritional-supplement company Star Scientific Inc., plied the first family with gifts and loans.

More recently, news broke that first lady Maureen McDonnell bought thousands of shares of stock in the company as she was promoting one of its products, apparently without the knowledge of the governor.

Mr. McDonnell has said he and his family have returned all "tangible" gifts, which include $15,000 for catering at a daughter's wedding, a $10,000 engagement present for another, and an engraved $6,500 Rolex watch Mrs. McDonnell said Mr. Williams bought for her to give to her husband.

The governor has also repaid more than $120,000 in loans Mr. Williams gave to Mrs. McDonnell and a real estate corporation owned by Mr. McDonnell and his sister.

The governor has insisted that neither Mr. Williams nor his company received any special treatment from the state.

Prosecutors currently are weighing whether to bring criminal charges in the case, but Mr. McDonnell said this week that he will not be leaving office early.

"I'm going to be governor of Virginia for another 4 months," he said.

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