Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe squared off in their first prime-time debate Wednesday evening.
Two of the three candidates for governor, they appeared in a Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce showdown that several times in the past decade has made a difference in the election.
Going into Wednesday's debate, McAuliffe led Cuccinelli 43-38 percent, with Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis at 8 percent among likely voters, a new NBC4/NBC News/Marist poll out Monday finds.
The poll of 546 likely voters and 1,069 registered voters, conducted from Sept. 17 to 19, comes two days before a debate between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli sponsored by NBC4 Washington and the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and moderated by NBC News Chief White House Correspondent and Political Director Chuck Todd.
The numbers are a reversal from May, the last time Marist polled the race, when Cuccinelli led 45-42 percent. McAuliffe has the narrow advantage, something both campaigns privately acknowledge, but with six weeks to go until Election Day, the race is far from decided.
"Overall, as we look through these numbers, neither of these candidates has really passed the comfort level with Virginia voters," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the poll. "There's still a ways to go with where they are."
A big reason for McAuliffe's narrow edge is because he leads with women by 18 points (50-32 percent). Cuccinelli, on the other hand, only leads by 8 among men (44-36 percent). In the 2009 governor's race, Republican Bob McDonnell won women 54-46 percent and men 62-37 percent in his 18-point victory.
After a summer of mudslinging and negative campaign ads, neither candidate is well liked, but Cuccinelli has taken a bigger hit. Just 34 percent of registered voters view Cuccinelli favorably, while 47 percent say they have an unfavorable impression of him. Back in May, it was the reverse – 42 favorable, 27 percent unfavorable.
McAuliffe, on the other hand, is on the positive side – 41 favorable, 34 percent negative – though those unfavorable numbers are up 10 points as more people have gotten to know the former Democratic National Committee chairman under Bill Clinton and party fundraiser.
"The more they’ve gotten to know these candidates," Miringoff said, "the negatives have taken hold."
Sarvis is the wild card in the race and presents a potential threat to Cuccinelli. Sarvis' 8 percent is in line with a Quinnipiac poll out last week that had him at 7 percent. Sarvis gets 15 percent of independents, 5 percent of Republicans, and just 2 percent of Democrats. (McAuliffe and Cuccinelli split independents, with McAuliffe holding a statistically insignificant 36-34 percent edge.)
"If this ends up very close, there is a factor there," Miringoff said.
Sarvis may be something of an outlet for disaffected Republican voters who are calling themselves independents. With the national GOP brand suffering, there has been a trend nationally and in Virginia that more Republicans are identifying as independents. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president in 2012, after all, won independents, but lost the election.
"He's tapped into something," Miringoff said of Sarvis. "I don’t know that he gets 8 percent in the end, but he's certainly going to get something in there. There's a lot of dissatisfaction." Cuccinelli "doesn’t want to hemorrhage any more votes than he" can afford.
But McAuliffe is not close to 50 percent and not at even 45 percent. "McAuliffe has a marginal lead, but it's very marginal," Miringoff noted.
The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3% among registered voters and +/- 4.2% for likely voters.