The Washington Times - October 23, 2013, 06:42AM

A poll released Wednesday among likely voters gives Democrat Terry McAuliffe a 7-point lead over Republican Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II with less than two weeks to go in the Virginia governor’s race and one day before the two men square off in their third and final formal debate at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

Mr. McAuliffe, a businessman and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, leads Mr. Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general, 46 percent to 39 percent, with Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis taking 10 percent of the vote.

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The results are largely unchanged from an Oct. 10 Quinnipiac survey that gave Mr. McAuliffe an 8-point lead, 47 percent to 39 percent, with Mr. Sarvis taking 8 percent.

“Democrat Terry McAuliffe leads in the race to be Virginia’s next governor, but the double-digit presence of Libertarian Robert Sarvis on the ballot creates a major uncertainty,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling institute.

Four percent are undecided and 7 percent say there’s a good chance they’ll change their minds by Nov. 5.

While many public polls have shown the Republican party taking a greater hit from the partial government shutdown earlier this month, it appears to have had little effect on the state of play in Quinnipiac’s numbers, even though 77 percent of voters say it has hurt Virginia “somewhat” or “a great deal.”

Still, 45 percent of voters say their position on the shutdown is closer to that of Mr. McAuliffe’s, whose campaign has cut ads trying to link Mr. Cuccinelli to Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, one of several senators who tried to hold up a government spending bill in order to defund President Obama’s health care overhaul.

Mr. Cuccinelli has said both sides share blame for the impasse, and said this week he didn’t know whether he would have voted for a congressional measure that re-opened the federal government and raised the country’s borrowing limit.

Mr. McAuliffe leads 92-3 percent among Democrats and Mr. Cuccinelli leads 81-6 percent among Republicans, with independents split at 39 percent apiece. Mr. Sarvis pulls in 2 percent from Democrats, 11 percent from Republicans, and 14 percent from independents.

“The big question about Sarvis is whether his voters will stick with him to the end, or wind up voting for McAuliffe or Republican State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli,” Mr. Brown said. “Generally over the past decades, especially in southern states like Virginia, Republicans win when they have strong party allegiance among their base. One reason McAuliffe is ahead is that he wins 92 percent of Democrats while Cuccinelli has only 81 percent of Republicans. If Cuccinelli can’t bring more Republicans home, he is likely to be toast.”

Mr. McAuliffe continues to enjoy an advantage over Mr. Cuccinelli among women, at 49 percent to 35 percent, with 10 percent opting for Mr. Sarvis. Mr. Cuccinelli leads among men, 44 percent to 42 percent, with 10 percent choosing Mr. Sarvis.

Mr. Sarvis is polling in the double digits despite 78 percent of voters saying they don’t know enough about him to form an opinion. That could partly be chalked up to voters’ opinion of the nasty battle overall; 58 percent have an unfavorable view of the race and 34 percent say “strongly unfavorable.”

Mr. McAuliffe has a negative 39-43 percent favorable/unfavorable split, and Mr. Cuccinelli has a negative 38-52 percent split.

Voters are generally split on whether they think the two major party candidates are honest and trustworthy and on who they think would do a better job handling ethics in government.

Forty-six percent say Mr. McAuliffe understands the problems of people like them, compared to 43 percent who say he does not. More than half say Mr. Cuccinelli does not understand the problems of people like them, compared to 39 percent who say he does.

By a 64-30 percent margin, however, voters say Mr. Cuccinelli has the right experience to be governor, compared to a 49-40 percent split for Mr. McAuliffe.

“In general voters think McAuliffe is better able to understand their problems and Cuccinelli has the right experience to be governor,” Mr. Brown said. “They overwhelmingly cite honesty and trustworthiness as the characteristics they most want in a governor, and on that scale, the two are virtually even.”

The survey of 1,085 likely voters was taken from Oct. 15-21 and has a margin of error of three percentage points. Voters do not register by party in Virginia, but 33 percent self-identified as Democrats, 25 percent said they were Republicans, and 35 percent said they were independents.