Washington Post poll numbers from over the weekend showed Republican Ken Cuccinelli opening a slight lead in the gubernatorial race against Democrat Terry McAuliffe while today’s NBC/Marist numbers show a much closer race:

Democrat Terry McAuliffe holds a slim lead over Republican Ken Cuccinelli (43% to 41%) among registered voters, which is within the margin of error, in the most competitive race of 2013.

The poll offers both good and bad omens for each candidate. When looking at just likely voters, Cuccinelli takes the lead, 45% to 42%.

McAuliffe’s narrow lead among registered voters comes largely thanks to the poll’s Republican/Democrat/Independent split of 27/31/40. Both candidates enjoy support from 91% of their party and split independents at 36% each.

Getting deeper into the poll, the numbers start favoring Cuccinelli in ways that the McAuliffe camp can’t be comfortable with:

Intensity of Support

When voters were asked how strongly they backed their choice, Cuccinelli won out amont his supporters with 53% compared to McAuliffe pulling only 47%. While the election is nearly six months out, that kind of enthusiasm gap is something McAuliffe is going to have to address and not by attacking Cuccinelli, who also enjoys a 51% approval rating for his performance as Attorney General.

(As an aside, Bob McDonnell’s approval rating sits at 61%. Governor McDonnell has consistently maintained an approval rating in the 60s.)

On The Issues

Despite efforts to paint Ken Cuccinelli as a right wing tea party crusader, only 27% of voters find the nominee to be “too conservative” while 28% say McAuliffe is “too liberal.”

On the issues, Cuccinelli enjoys an outside-of-the-margin-of-error advantage when asked who is right on the issues, topping McAuliffe 39% to 33%.

When asked who better understands the problems voters are facing, again Cuccinelli wins, 33% to 29%.

And on who voters trust to do what’s best for Virginia? Ken Cuccinelli leads by 6, 37% to 31%.

So what?

It’s six months out. A lot can change. But Democrats are facing a problem not just in enthusiasm but in getting ahead on the issues.

Virginia statewide elections have typically shown a more Republican turnout in gubernatorial years compared to federal. If that trend continues, the R/D/I split of these polls are flipped, and the picture gets even worse for McAuliffe and the rest of the Democratic ticket.

But even if Democrats can close the turnout gap, Cuccinelli has staked an early lead on the issues and in credibility among the electorate, despite thousands of dollars spent so far trying to define him as the extremist he isn’t. McAuliffe, on the other hand, is still a relatively unknown character, despite his reputation and a run for the Democratic nomination in 2009. 44% of voters have never heard of Terry McAuliffe while 32% said the same about Ken Cuccinelli. In both cases there is room for definition, but as the focus shifts from defining each other to defining themselves, Cuccinelli has a head start.

Updates

Stephen Spiker weighs in over at Bearing Drift and makes some comparisons between the NBC/Marist and WaPo polls:

1) NBC/Marist uses a more traditional likely voter screen, while the Post showed results by those “absolutely certain to vote”. A stricter screen will give more weight to the most reliable voters, who tend to be older and whiter.

2) Whether due to item #1 alone or if other factors were involved, NBC/Marist’s party breakdown is 27% GOP/31% DEM/40% IND, compared to the Post’s more balanced 26% GOP/28% DEM/33% IND.

3) Unlike all the other live interview surveys released thus far in Virginia, more voters in the NBC/Marist survey say they have heard of McAuliffe and Cuccinelli and have opinions about them.

He also lists some other very valid concerns that are worth reading.

Jim Geraghty at National Review notes:

But we probably ought to spotlight that 19 percent of registered-voter respondents say they have never voted in a gubernatorial election before.

1 in 5 voters are new voters? Without the crosstabs it’d hard to know what accounts for this, but that just doesn’t pass the smell test at first blush.