RICHMOND, Va. — In just 57 days and a wake-up, Virginia voters head to the polls to decide who will govern them for the next four years.
It sounds so close. But as any political pro or seasoned candidate can tell you, that's an eternity in electoral time.
Late August polling indicates that Democrat Terry McAuliffe has an edge over Republican Ken Cuccinelli.
But with Labor Day now past, Virginia's weary electorate is finally focused on politics. Because of that, several events — some known, others unknown, and most outside the campaigns' control — can exert enough gravitational pull to alter the trajectory of the nation's only competitive governor's race. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is widely expected to win re-election in that state's race.
Two events will happen just across the Potomac.
Congress votes as early as this week on President Barack Obama's request for authority to launch punitive strikes against the Syrian government for its suspected chemical weapons attacks on a rebel-held suburb of Damascus, the Syrian capital, in that country's civil war.
Should the House and Senate go along, they will likely authorize only limited air-support attacks with no U.S. troops in the country. But the attacks will rivet the country, even if there isn't a retaliatory response from Syria's allies, which include Iran and Russia.
Whatever happens could have the effect of freezing the Virginia campaign. A dozen years ago, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks put the governor's race between Democrat Mark R. Warner and Republican Mark L. Earley in a deep freeze for more than a week. Candidates usually pull television attack ads that could be taken in poor taste as a nation closes ranks behind its troops. It also becomes difficult for either candidate's message to punch through wall-to-wall coverage of a military conflict.
Another congressional fight that will more directly bear on the Virginia race is the looming partisan showdown over the nation's debt ceiling. It's essentially the same question that almost paralyzed the federal government two years ago and risked throwing world markets into a tailspin. Partisan brinksmanship over whether to allow the government to borrow more money to pay off its bills went right to the deadline.
What broke the logjam in 2011 was a Faustian bargain called "sequestration," jargon for indiscriminate across-the-board cuts to military and domestic spending that were thought to be so unpalatable that both sides would compromise on a less damaging deficit-reduction plan. They didn't. The cuts took effect in March, and it's likely Congress will do nothing to change it this fall.
With sequestration a fact of life and Virginia at risk because of its concentration of military and federal contractors, each candidate claims to be the better money manager for austere times. Whether McAuliffe or Cuccinelli takes the blame depends on what how the debt limit crisis plays out, whether it damages the economy and whether one party or the other bears the greater share of blame.
For months, Cuccinelli has been warning of a train wreck when enrollment commences in new health care exchanges created by the Democratic-passed 2010 health care overhaul. He was the first state attorney general to challenge the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act and supports repealing what he calls "Obamacare." The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law.
Such a massive intergovernmental undertaking carries inherent startup problems: a populace unfamiliar with the program, technological snafus linking state exchanges where people shop for coverage plans with a federal hub with data routed to several federal agencies, a steep learning curve not only for customers but for the "navigators" and others trained to walk them through the process.
Well-publicized early calamities might validate Cuccinelli's dire predictions and harm McAuliffe, who advocates implementing the federal law in Virginia, including the federally funded expansion of Medicaid to as many as 400,000 Virginians just above the federal poverty line. Conversely, if the program hits few bumps before Election Day, Cuccinelli appears alarmist and loses a substantial late-game talking point while McAuliffe carries a clean bill of health into November.
The October trial of former Executive Mansion chef Todd Schneider holds peril for Cuccinelli, whose office initially oversaw the investigation and indictment of Schneider.
At first, the case seemed only to be a simple allegation of stealing groceries from the governor's kitchen. But it grew over the spring into a thicket of political intrigue involving gifts that Virginia businessman Jonnie R. Williams gave to Gov. Bob McDonnell and to Cuccinelli. Williams' company, nutritional supplements maker Star Scientific Inc., is the subject of a federal securities probe and shareholder lawsuits. Federal and state authorities are investigating the relationship between Williams and McDonnell.
In May, Cuccinelli persuaded a judge to recuse his office from the Schneider case and appoint a special prosecutor. Cuccinelli cited a conflict of interest, saying a potential witness who had been chief aide to First Lady Maureen McDonnell later worked for a company that helped with Cuccinelli's gubernatorial campaign fundraising.
The high-profile nature of the case against the backdrop of the ongoing federal criminal probe involving the governor and the willingness of Schneider's attorney, Steve Benjamin, to draw links to Cuccinelli when it benefits his client will generate daily reminders of gifts totaling $18,000 that Cuccinelli received from Williams and his company.
But the most decisive known event is one the candidates themselves will control: the Sept. 25 debate sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, the only one-on-one faceoff with a live statewide prime-time television audience.
Candidate stumbles and fumbles produced significant turning points in the 2005 and 2009 gubernatorial race, and in the 2006 U.S. Senate race.
Bob Lewis has covered Virginia government and politics for The Associated Press since 2000.