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Democrat's lead narrows in Virginia governor's race: poll

By Gary Robertson

RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - Democrat Terry McAuliffe leads Republican Ken Cuccinelli by just 3 percentage points in the race for Virginia governor as the tightest U.S. governor's contest gets even closer, a Quinnipiac University poll showed on Wednesday.

McAuliffe, a businessman and former Democratic National Committee chairman, leads Cuccinelli, Virginia's attorney general, 44 percent to 41 percent, within the survey's margin of error.

In August, McAuliffe led Cuccinelli 48 percent to 42 percent in a Quinnipiac survey.

Libertarian Robert Sarvis has the backing of 7 percent of likely voters, the poll showed.

Virginia is dominated by Republican officeholders, but the state went for Democrat Barack Obama in last year's presidential election.

Cuccinelli has been ensnared in a scandal involving the chief executive of Star Scientific Inc, Jonnie Williams, who gave gifts to him and Republican Governor Bob McDonnell. Cuccinelli said last week he would give a charity $18,000, the value of gifts he got from Williams.

Virginia does not allow its governors to run for re-election.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said the race remained tight.

"It is not a runaway for McAuliffe, and low turnout could undo his lead in November," he said.

The Quinnipiac poll surveyed 1,005 likely voters from September 9-15. The margin of error is 3.1 percent.

Cuccinelli had a 51 percent "unfavorable" rating among likely voters, compared with 34 percent who viewed him favorably. McAuliffe split 38-38 percent on favorability.

Sarvis, the Libertarian candidate, might be a deciding factor in a race that Quinnipiac said is too close to call.

Sarvis is getting 3 percent of the Republican vote and 2 percent of Democrats', but 14 percent of independent voters, said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

New Jersey is the only other state with a gubernatorial election in November. Incumbent Republican Chris Christie, seen as a likely presidential candidate in 2016, leads Democratic state Senator Barbara Buono by 20 points, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released on Monday.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Adler)

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