ROANOKE, Va. (AP) - The 16-day partial government shutdown is all but certain to figure prominently in Thursday's final sparring match between candidates in the governor's race. And that could be a problem for Republican Ken Cuccinelli.
Since the shutdown began, Cuccinelli's standing in polls has suffered, as has that of the entire Republican Party. The current attorney general enters the final two weeks of the race struggling to close the polling and spending gap with Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
It could be tough for Cuccinelli to change the dynamics of the race heading into the home stretch.
The shutdown affected scores of Virginia residents, some 172,000 of whom are federal civilian workers, and it cost the nation billions while threatening a national default on its loans. The tea party-backed Cuccinelli found himself caught between the demands core supporters on the right who helped him win the nomination and moderates, independents and others whose support he will need to overtake McAuliffe.
And he is being heavily outspent by a roughly 2-to-1 margin on television, with most of the messages bluntly anti-Cuccinelli.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found 47 percent of Virginians said the shutdown hurt the state "a great deal," and another 30 percent said it hurt "somewhat." Voters said they favored McAuliffe's position on the shutdown by 10 percentage points, a 45-35 margin.
During the shutdown, Cuccinelli largely avoided what was happening in Washington and ducked one joint appearance with Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who was the architect of the shutdown strategy. Since the deal emerged to reopen the government, dodge a default on the government's debts and give federal workers back pay, Cuccinelli has worked to change the subject. He's focused on Democrats' health care law, the Environmental Protection Agency and McAuliffe's tenure as chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the 1990s.
Cuccinelli has strained to avoid taking a firm position on the shutdown, which was triggered partly by tea party demands that Congress strip funding for the health care law.
Cuccinelli clearly wants to talk about anything else.
"You know, I'm running for governor," he said Tuesday in Danville, brushing aside questions about his shutdown views. "My focus is on this side of the Potomac."
A day earlier, an impromptu press conference included several questions on the work stoppage.
"I don't know whether I would have voted for it," Cuccinelli said in Sterling. "I read Virginia bills."
Asked again about the shutdown, he said: "For people who don't like the D.C. approach, they don't like the shutdown, my opponent comes from D.C."
Cuccinelli may be pressed for a straight answer Thursday, a political decision riddled with risks. Criticizing the shutdown likely would anger tea partyers who are his core supporters, volunteers and donors, who must turn out come Nov. 5. But supporting the shutdown probably would rile up federal workers who were off the job for 16 days in this government-heavy state. Coming out in favor of the compromise that reopened the government - but left the federal health law in place - surrenders Cuccinelli's credentials as a chief Republican crusader against the health care law.
Even as Cuccinelli tries to move on from the shutdown, there are constant reminders of it - some by Cuccinelli's own doing. Among the shutdown-linked political celebrities working on his behalf: Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the House GOP leader on budget negotiations who hosted a conference call to help boost him. Sen. Rand Paul, another tea party darling, is set to join Cuccinelli next week.
Democrats see an opportunity to embarrass Cuccinelli. At every chance, they link Cuccinelli with Washington lawmakers who set the shutdown in motion.
"While it's clear that Virginia prefers Terry McAuliffe and his focus on bipartisan solutions to strengthen and diversify the economy, the final two weeks will be about making sure mainstream Virginians don't let their voices get drowned out by the tea party," said McAuliffe spokeswoman Rachel Thomas .
Cuccinelli's advisers have been working to build a case that McAuliffe - not Republicans - was cheering for the shutdown. They point to comments McAuliffe made months ago, pledging that he would never sign a state budget that didn't include a Medicaid expansion under Democrats' health care law .
Any bill, including the budget, can automatically become law in Virginia without the governor's signature. But Cuccinelli argues McAuliffe's position would have led to a state government shutdown: "If your governor will not sign your state budget, you don't have a budget."