MANASSAS -- The Virginia governor's race is a dead heat, according to a poll released Wednesday, with both candidates struggling to become a household name despite years in the public spotlight.
A Christopher Newport University survey found 31 percent of registered voters preferred Terry McAuliffe in the race, putting him in a virtual tie with Ken Cuccinelli, who finished with 30 percent. About a third of Virginians were still undecided. Neither candidate is well-known, with nearly half of those polled indicating they had no opinion of McAuliffe and four in 10 saying they were undecided on Cuccinelli.
McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2009, spent Wednesday in Northern Virginia combating those headwinds. In a meeting with a Manassas defense contractor, he pitched himself as a successful businessman who would advocate for companies.
But McAuliffe is also already taking steps to define his likely opponent as a radical conservative out of touch with mainstream voters.
"He's got a different agenda. He's more into the social issues," McAuliffe told top executives at Aurora Flight Sciences, where Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., also campaigned a few months ago. "I just don't think that's helpful to bring businesses here. I think it'll be a stark contrast between the two of us. I'm all about economic development."
Cuccinelli has so far not backed away from the conservative battles that have made him a favorite among Tea Party groups. Earlier in January, the Republican told an Iowa radio show that opponents of federal health care reform should be willing to go to jail to fight a provision that requires insurance companies to cover birth control.
"What I mean by that is people need to see it play out all the way to its logical conclusion," Cuccinelli said.
Recently filed campaign finance reports show Cuccinelli and McAuliffe are both starting 2013 with about $1 million on hand. But Cuccinelli's fundraising operation must go dark while the General Assembly is in session until the end of next month, while the well-connected McAuliffe can continue to raise unlimited money.
Cuccinelli has mostly steered away from public campaign events, instead using the Attorney General's Office to meet with key constituent groups. And he's pushing a populist legislative agenda that makes it easier for candidates to run for office in addition to tough-on-crime measures that tend to be popular among voters.
Outside of their shared lack of name recognition, the two candidates could also face a test from Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who continues to weigh an independent bid since being forced out of the GOP race. In a hypothetical three-way contest, Bolling garnered 9 percent of the vote, according to the Christopher Newport University poll, stealing support from both candidates.
Bolling told "The John Fredericks Show" on Wednesday that there's a 50 percent chance he'll run because there's "a real opening in this race for a viable and credible, independent choice."