WASHINGTON (CNN) - With less than four weeks until election day, a new poll indicates that the Republicans are widening their lead over the Democrats in the Virginia gubernatorial race.
Republican candidate and former state attorney general Bob McDonnell leads Democrat Creigh Deeds 53 percent to 44 percent, according to a Washington Post survey released Thursday afternoon. McDonnell's nine point margin among likely voters is up five points from his lead in a Washington Post poll from mid September.
The survey suggests that the gains Deeds had made following his attacks on McDonnell's conservative views on social issues, have faded. The past five weeks the Deeds campaign has aggressively highlighted McDonnell's 20 year old graduate thesis, a document that called working women detrimental to families and criticized "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators."
But the poll indicates Deeds strategy may backfire. Fifty-six percent of people questioned say Deeds, a state senator, is conducting a negative campaign. Only 32 percent say McDonnell's running a negative campaign. And for the first time in Washington Post polling, a majority of voters, 51 percent, say McDonnell is "about right" ideologically.
Deeds' advantage with female votes has all but disappeared, with the Democrat now holding only a 50 percent to 48 percent lead, which is within the survey's sampling error. Deeds' 17 point advantage last month in voter rich and Democrat leaning northern Virginia is now down to five points. The poll also indicates he now trails McDonnell by 21 points among Independents and that Deeds supporters are less enthusiastic than McDonnell backers.
Virginia's current governor, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine, is term limited and can't seek a second term. In New Jersey, the only other state holding a gubernatorial contest this November, incumbent Jon Corzine is dead even in recent polls with Republican challenger Chris Christie.
While the campaigns in both New Jersey and Virginia concentrate on local issues and the candidates themselves, they are also partially viewed as an early referendum on Barack Obama's presidency. Obama has traveled to both states to campaign personally with the candidates, and is expected to team up with Corzine again in New Jersey later this month.
The Washington Post poll was conducted Sunday through Wednesday, with 1,001 likely Virginia voters questioned by telephone. The survey's sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.