Crunch time has arrived in what is likely the only truly competitive race in the nation this year.
With less than six weeks before voters in Virginia pick a new governor, the candidates will debate Wednesday evening in the Washington suburb of McLean. Because the New Jersey gubernatorial race -- the only other major off-year election -- has been so lopsided, the attention this year has focused squarely on the Old Dominion contest.
"Essentially, Virginia being only game in town in 2013, it has become 'experiment central' for both parties and it's not just an experiment for the 2014 midterms. People are already looking forward to 2016 presidential elections," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "Virginia now is one of the key swing states. It's the closest to the national average in terms of the vote in 2008 and 2012, and it has implications for 2016,"
Republican Ken Cuccinelli may need a break-out moment in the debate to shake up the electorate. The polls have not budged much in weeks.
For weeks, the race has been tight with Democrat Terry McAuliffe leading within or barely outside most polls' margins of error. The latest Washington Post poll shows McAulliffe with a slight edge, leading 49-45 percent. But McAuliffe's edge has been steady, and Republican Ken Cuccinelli is trailing by a huge 24 percentage points among women.
It's a race that both sides knew would be close, and which hinges on nasty attack ads. Cuccinelli, who is the state attorney general, has united social conservatives and Tea Partiers after becoming the first AG in the nation to sue to halt ObamaCare in his state. McAuliffe, on the stump and on the airwaves, calls Cuccinelli extreme. In a recent ad, McAuliffe speaks directly to the camera and says "there are some out there that are focused on a divisive ideological agenda and that's just not helpful."
McAuliffe is the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and the biggest fundraiser during the campaign finance scandal-plagued Bill Clinton era. When the Clintons were in the White House, McAuliffe was known as the man behind renting the Lincoln Bedroom for unlimited contributions to the DNC. He has had some controversial wins and losses in business, and Cuccinelli has trashed him as untrustworthy. A recent TV states flatly: "A second investigation into Terry McAuliffe's shady business deals ... shady deals, federal investigations. You can't trust Terry McAuliffe."
Wednesday's debate figures to be a crescendo to the accelerating exchange of nasty charges and counter-charges. The national parties, out-of-state super PACs, special interests and the like are all pouring money into Virginia, seeing it as this year's biggest battle and a testing ground for strategy, tactics and messaging.
At least 80 percent of Democrats are backing McAulliffe and at least 80 percent of Republicans are backing Cuccinelli, polls show. But about 10 percent of all likely voters are undecided, so the race can still go either way.