Playing out just across the Potomac River from shutdown Washington, D.C., the Virginia governor's race has turned into a real-time test of Republican and Democratic positions in the congressional budget battle raging in the U.S. capital.
With polls indicating more public resentment toward Republicans than Democrats, the federal work stoppage directly affecting thousands of Virginia residents has forced Republican Ken Cuccinelli on the defensive while giving Democrat Terry McAuliffe an opening in a race that had been neck-and-neck for months.
Now, public and internal surveys show voter support has started breaking McAuliffe's way, with the Democrat leading by 8 percentage points in a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday. The same poll showed that by a nearly 3-1 majority, Virginians opposed Congress shutting down the government in a fight over President Barack Obama's health care law.
The outcome of the Nov. 5 election in this swing-voting state could provide clues about how the issue will play in next November's House and Senate midterm elections - and give both parties a road map as they fight for control of Congress.
Cuccinelli, the conservative state attorney general, has sought to carefully distance himself from House Republican leaders and tea party lawmakers without alienating his conservative core supporters or moderate independents - particularly in the affluent and fast-growing Washington suburbs.
Earlier this month, Cuccinelli called on congressional Republicans to drop their insistence that Congress dismantle the health care law as a condition for reopening the government. Two days later, he appeared at a conservative Christian group's fundraiser that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also attended. But Cuccinelli didn't make any public mention of Cruz, the tea party conservative hero who led the Senate Republicans' effort to defund the health care law.
Cuccinelli has lambasted McAuliffe for saying he wouldn't sign a Virginia budget that didn't include a Medicaid expansion, the mechanism the health care law uses to extend coverage to the working poor.
To people in Virginia, Cuccinelli said, McAuliffe's position amounts to "a government shutdown.''
McAuliffe is a former national Democratic Party chairman and a friend of former President Bill Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. McAuliffe has been stoking the notion - on the campaign trail and in TV ads blanketing the state - that Republicans are to blame for the shutdown and that Cuccinelli is no different from those whose demands helped trigger it. He's sought to link Cuccinelli to the tea party and paint him as too ideologically extreme for Virginia.
"I wouldn't even be in the same room with Ted Cruz with the damage he has brought to so many Virginia families,'' McAuliffe said. "And if I'd gone to the room, I'd tell him to stop using a government shutdown as an ideological bargaining chip.''
The arguments are salient in this state, which is home to many federal employees and receives the most military spending per capita in the nation.
Cuccinelli's political adviser, Republican strategist Christopher J. LaCivita, acknowledged that the shutdown has created a challenge for his candidate at a critical time, saying, "We don't get to talk about the good stuff Ken would do as governor.''
Josh Schwerin, a senior aide to McAuliffe, said the shutdown played right into his candidate's key argument against Cuccinelli and the tea party: "They're more concerned about pushing their ideological agenda than solving problems.''
Downright nasty now, the race has been very negative from almost the start because it pitted two deeply unpopular candidates against each other.
Majorities of Virginia voters long have viewed Cuccinelli and McAuliffe in a negative light, and both brought considerable political baggage into this November's only competitive governor's race.
Cuccinelli is testing the notion of whether a Republican as conservative as him can win in a swing-voting state.
He was the first attorney general in the nation to challenge Obama's new health overhaul law. A global-warming skeptic, he mounted a two-year inquest into whether a former University of Virginia climate scientist used manipulated data to land federal grants. And only weeks after taking office, Cuccinelli warned Virginia's public college officials that they could not enact policies against discrimination toward gays that are tougher than state law, an action Gov. Bob McDonnell, a fellow Republican social conservative, rescinded.
As attorney general, Cuccinelli pressured members of the State Board of Health to reverse their decision to exempt existing abortion clinics from new regulations that hold facilities where a certain number of abortions are performed to the stringent architectural requirements for hospitals. The board ultimately decided to apply the standards to existing clinics.
Since March, Cuccinelli has been dogged by his ties to a wealthy benefactor whose more than $145,000 in personal gifts and loans to McDonnell and his family remains a subject of federal and state criminal investigations. Cuccinelli accepted $18,000 in gifts from that benefactor, Jonnie R. Williams, chief executive of a Virginia-based nutritional supplements company.
The governor's scandal not only stained Cuccinelli, it drowned out his campaign's message throughout the spring and summer, and it sidelined his most formidable advocate and fundraiser, the sitting governor.
McAuliffe, with his vast national network of donors, has raised nearly twice as much as Cuccinelli.
But he's had his own troubles.
McAuliffe headed a small electric-car company that bypassed Virginia to set up operations in north Mississippi two years ago. Now federal authorities are investigating the company's use of a federal program that grants visas to foreign investors who put at least $500,000 into qualifying American-grown business ventures. McAuliffe was the company's chairman for three years before quietly stepping down after declaring his candidacy last November.
Last week, McAuliffe's name surfaced on a list of investors with a Rhode Island estate planner who is now jailed for using the stolen identities of terminally ill people to secure annuities on them without their knowledge, then collecting insurance benefits when they died.
There is no allegation of wrongdoing by McAuliffe or that he or other investors knew of efforts to defraud the terminally ill. McAuliffe said he was only a passive investor and unaware of the scheme.