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McAuliffe stumbles on substance in Virginia; GOP stumbles to seize advantage

But Ken Cuccinelli lags in favorability, new polls show

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The campaign of Terry McAuliffe is getting tripped up in the stretch run of the race for Virginia governor over the Democrat's perceived lack of substance on issues, but the unfavorable ratings of Republican Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II apparently have offset the stumbles, according to polling numbers released Monday.

Republicans, who for months have had only moderate success attacking the former Democratic National Committee chairman for his ties to a controversial and underperforming car company he co-founded, had seen poll numbers tighten amid skepticism about Mr. McAuliffe's command of critical policy matters.

In recent days:

The Northern Virginia Technology Council's political arm, TechPAC, endorsed Mr. Cuccinelli, and a subsequent news report indicated offered detailed responses in his interview with the group, while Mr. McAuliffe came across as ill-prepared and superficial.

Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat, issued a blistering criticism that six weeks from Election Day, Mr. McAuliffe has yet to outline what he stands for.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch penned an editorial decrying Mr. McAuliffe's "troubling lack of mastery and odd flippancy" on issues, concluding he "still isn't ready for the office he seeks."

In addition, The Washington Times reported last week that Mr. McAuliffe told supporters he would keep the state's abortion clinics open by employing an executive power that officials in state government say does not exist.

Mr. Cuccinelli recently seized on the theme by releasing an ad called "Serious," which highlights the technology council endorsement and the report in The Washington Post criticizing Mr. McAuliffe's responses to the group.

The Cuccinelli ad juxtaposes text passages from the news report with images of Mr. McAuliffe from his days as chairman of Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. The video shows Mr. McAuliffe waving a bottle of alcohol and drinking shots from what was purported to be a bottle of rum during appearances on nationally televised programs.

The new GOP line of attack comes ahead of a televised face-to-face debate between the candidates scheduled for Wednesday in McLean and after a week of tightening poll numbers.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday had Mr. McAuliffe leading Mr. Cuccinelli among likely voters, 44 percent to 41 percent. Mr. McAuliffe led in a similar poll last month by double that margin, 48 percent to 42 percent. Meanwhile, 58 percent of voters say Mr. Cuccinelli has the right experience to be governor, compared with 47 percent for Mr. McAuliffe.

But two polls released Monday reversed those trends, showing Mr. McAuliffe leading by 8 percentage points and by 5 percentage points, both gaps greater than the margin of error and typical of Mr. McAuliffe's earlier leads. He is ahead of Mr. Cuccinelli 47 percent to 39 percent among likely voters in a Washington Post-Abt SRBI poll, with Libertarian Robert Sarvis taking 10 percent of the vote. An NBC4/NBC/Marist poll gives Mr. McAuliffe a 5-point edge among likely voters at 43 percent to 38 percent, with Mr. Sarvis taking 8 percent.

By contrast, the latest Post poll, published May 4, had Mr. Cuccinelli up by 10 percentage points and the previous Marist poll, also released in May, had the Republican up by 3 points.

Where Mr. McAuliffe holds an even greater edge is in favorability — something with which the Democratic and Republican candidates have both struggled.

Forty-eight percent of registered voters in the Post poll view him favorably, compared with 36 percent who view him unfavorably. Mr. Cuccinelli, meanwhile, has a 40 percent to 47 percent favorable-unfavorable split.

The split was similar in the NBC4/NBC/Marist survey; 41 percent of voters had a favorable view of Mr. McAuliffe in that poll compared with 34 percent unfavorable; Mr. Cuccinelli is at 34 percent favorable and 47 percent unfavorable.

Republicans have continued to raise questions about GreenTech Automotive Inc., the car company formerly run by Mr. McAuliffe that is under investigation by the federal government.

But just 42 percent of registered voters in the Post poll said they have been following the news about the company "very" or "somewhat" closely, and more than half said it wouldn't affect their vote. The controversy includes questions about the company's use of a federal program that offers visas to high-dollar investors and allegations that the company guaranteed returns for investors.

Mr. McAuliffe, who announced in April that he had left GreenTech in December, said recently that polls showing the race had been tightening weren't bothering him.

"I'm not paying attention to polls," he told reporters. "I feel great about where we are."

He also dismissed the criticism of his preparedness as "partisan attacks."

"I think what everybody knows is the amount of time that I have spent traveling to every nook and cranny in Virginia, talking about those issues that matter," he said. "I have put out a very substantive policy plan on all different issues. This is what I talk about from morning till night, seven days a week."

Still, some in his own party question whether Mr. McAuliffe has done enough to define his policy priorities.

"If you go out and say, 'OK, what is the issue other than anti-Cuccinelli?' it's difficult to find the Democrats coming up with an issue," Mr. Wilder said during an appearance Saturday on MSNBC.

The former governor leveled criticism at both candidates, saying the Cuccinelli campaign seems to be running on a platform of obstructing the agenda of national Democrats.

"That's why the public is saying 'pox on both of your houses,'" Mr. Wilder said.

Mr. McAuliffe has pledged to reach across the aisle to work with Republicans if he is elected governor. He has touted a host of Republican endorsements in the race this year and pledged to visit every GOP member of the legislature. He reportedly also told the technology council during his endorsement interview that, as an Irish Catholic, he would be adept at taking politicians out for drinks to get things accomplished.

But even that seems an oversimplification of what it might take to win the trust of Republican legislators, given his past rhetoric.

"Democrats are on the side of truth and trusting in the basic decency of working men and women. We don't have to change who we are or how we think. We just have to make sure we stand up for ourselves and ready for the inevitable Republican smears and attacks, which they have to use because they know they can't win an honest debate," he said in his 2007 book, "What a Party!"

The book also contains a candid account of his attitude toward study and preparation from his days at Georgetown University Law Center, which he says he attended while working full time and running four businesses. And how could law school, he writes, compare with hanging with high-powered Democrats like former House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill and Walter "Fritz" Mondale?

"So you get the idea that attending class wasn't my top priority," he said. "I took nine days off from my fund-raising and business work and devoted it all to law school to get ready for finals. I had not read any of the materials or attended many classes. To be honest, I found law school somewhat boring. How could it compare to playing cards with Tip or planning strategy with Fritz?"

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