Quinnipiac University’s first survey of likely voters shows McAuliffe with a 48 percent-to-42 percent lead over Cuccinelli, opening up a small gap between the two candidates in a race that until now has been a virtual dead heat.
McAuliffe’s lead is due in large part to women voters, half of whom back McAuliffe while 38 percent support Cuccinelli. McAuliffe has invested heavily in his appeal to women, portraying Cuccinelli, the state's attorney general, as a conservative foe of women's reproductive rights.
Cuccinelli is pushing back hard against the McAuliffe's portrayal of his as anti-woman, releasing a new commercial in which his wife talks about his record of fighting sexual assault while he was a student at the University of Virginia.
McAuliffe's attacks on Cuccinelli appear to be having an effect. About 41 percent of voters now have an unfavorable view of the Republican compared to 35 percent who like him.
The fallout from the federal investigation of Gov. Bob McDonnell and his relationship with a Virginia businessman who showered the state's first family with gifts and cash is also influencing the race to replace him. Voters rank honesty as the most attribute they'll look for in a candidate this fall.
Cuccinelli has predicted that the race will come down to which candidate voters trust most. Forty-two percent say they trust Cuccinelli compared to 43 percent who don't. Slightly fewer voters, 39 percent, trust McAuliffe compared to 36 percent who don't.
Voters also said they want a candidate who understands their problems. McAuliffe leads Cuccinelli by 16 percentage points among those voters. Cuccinelli is favored by voters whose top concern is experience, though experience ranked third among the attributes sought by voters overall.
About three-quarters of voters said their support for their candidate is solid and will not waiver as the campaign progresses Just 13 percent said they are wavering and could change their minds about who they vote for.
Cuccinelli's supporters are slightly more enthusiastic than McAuliffe's. About 85 percent of Cuccinelli voters say they are very or somewhat enthusiastic about him, compared to 78 percent who feel that way about McAuliffe.
Quinnipiac pollsters did not specifically quiz voters about the two candidate’s dueling controversies.
McAuliffe’s former electric car company, GreenTech Automotive, is the subject of a federal probe and the candidate has been accused of using his influence as a high-profile Democratic fundraiser to get special treatment for the company from the Obama administration.
Cuccinelli, meanwhile, is taking heat in southwest Virginia for his office’s involvement in a land dispute with gas companies and for accepting gifts from the same embattled businessman, Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams, tied to the McDonnell scandal.
Both candidates and their respective political allies are already on the air with a barrage of negative ads and voters, who are still getting over the swing-state blitz brought by last year's presidential election, are feeling it. More than half believe both candidates have spent most of their time attacking the opponent and little time explaining their platforms.