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First Thoughts: Neck and neck in Va.

NBC/Marist poll shows it’s neck and neck in Virginia… McAuliffe 43%, Cuccinelli 41% among registered voters… Cuccinelli 45%, McAuliffe 42% among likely voters… Good news for McAuliffe: It’s early, he has room to grow, and the GOP’s fav/unfav is way upside down in the state… The bad news for him: The poll doesn’t show Cuccinelli with an ideological problem just yet… Voters are relatively down on the VA GOV field, but are upbeat about the state’s direction… Looking ahead to 2016 in Virginia: Hillary tops McDonnell, while McDonnell beats Biden… Separate NBC/Marist poll shows Christie crushing Buono, 60%-28% among registered New Jersey voters… Looking ahead to 2016, Hillary is ahead of Christie, but the New Jersey governor leads Biden… From Appalachian Trail to Comeback Trail: Sanford beats Colbert Busch, 54%-45%... And House committee holds Benghazi hearing at 11:30 am ET.

*** Neck and neck in Virginia: Six months out until Virginia’s gubernatorial contest, Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli are locked in a close contest, according to a new NBC News/Marist poll. McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, gets the support of 43% of registered voters and Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general, gets 41%; 16% say they are undecided. That’s a different result from a recent Washington Post poll of the race, which had the Republican leading by five percentage points. But a deeper look in this NBC/Marist survey, and it’s clear Cuccinelli has a slight advantage. It starts with intensity: 53% of Cuccinelli backers strongly support him, versus 47% who express similar support for McAuliffe. What’s more, among likely voters -- not always the best way to measure a contest this far out -- Cuccinelli has a slight edge over McAuliffe, 45%-42%. The race also features a clear gender gap, with McAuliffe leading among female registered voters (50%-34%) and Cuccinelli ahead with men (49%-34%).

Patrick Kane / AP

Ken Cuccinelli, Republican candidate for governor of Virginia and Virginia attorney general, speaks during the 65th Annual Shad Planking Wednesday, April 17, 2013 at the Wakefield Sportsmen's Club in Wakefield, Va.

*** Good news, bad news: The good news for McAuliffe is that he has plenty of room to grow (44% of voters say they’re unsure/never heard of him, compared with 32% who say that about Cuccinelli). And the Republican Party is a potential drag for Cuccinelli: The GOP has a 37%-53% fav/unfav rating in the state, versus the Democratic Party’s 44%-46% score. Yet so far, before any negative advertising begins, the poll doesn’t show the party dragging Cuccinelli down -- his fav/unfav is 42%-27%. In addition, despite what some opinion leaders might believe, Cuccinelli doesn’t have an ideological problem right now, either. Per the poll, 27% say he’s too conservative, but a plurality of 39% think his ideology is just right. By comparison, 28% see McAuliffe as too liberal, and 33% say he’s just right. And the two men essentially run even on candidate-quality questions, although Cuccinelli has a slight edge on some of them, including ones where Democrats usually outperform Republicans.

-- Who better understands people like yourself? (Cuccinelli 34%, McAuliffe 30%.)
-- Who do you trust more to do what’s best for Virginia? (Cuccinelli 39%, McAuliffe 33%.)
-- Who is closer to you on social issues? (Cuccinelli 33%, McAuliffe 31%.)
-- Who cares more about the middle class? (McAuliffe 31%, Cuccinelli 30%.)
-- Who shares your values? (Cuccinelli 35%, McAuliffe 29%.)

*** Down on the gubernatorial field but upbeat on the state’s direction: Strikingly (and perhaps not surprisingly), only 52% say they are satisfied with the field of gubernatorial candidates in Virginia. That’s compared with 61% who say that it in New Jersey (more on that gubernatorial contest down below). That said, all the state’s politicians are pretty popular. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell’s approval rating is at 61% (what scandal?); Cuccinelli’s approval rating as attorney general is at 51%; and President Obama’s approval in the state is at an equal 51%. What’s more, if McDonnell were allowed to run for re-election, he’d lead McAuliffe by 15 points, 51%-36%. And a whopping 61% believe the state is headed in the right direction. Bottom line: The state is in good shape, and the Cuccinelli-McAuliffe contest could largely come down to which candidate can do a better job of selling that he would follow the Warner-Kaine-McDonnell path -- the conservative attorney general or the former DNC chair? It’s clear voters don’t really want change. It’s why when you look at this survey, everything points to the GOP holding the slight advantage as the party in power.

*** Looking ahead to 2016: And our NBC/Marist poll has some fun 2016 numbers to chew on when it comes to Virginia. In a hypothetical matchup, Hillary Clinton leads McDonnell in the state by 11 points, 52%-41%. Let those numbers sink in -- despite McDonnell’s 61% approval rating, he trails Clinton by double digits. However, in a hypothetical contest against Vice President Biden, McDonnell leads, 49%-42%. That said, nearly six-in-10 (58%) don’t want McDonnell to run for president. The NBC/Marist poll of Virginia was conducted April 28-May 2 of 1,095 registered voters (margin of error of plus-minus 3.0 percentage points) and 692 likely voters (plus-minus 3.7 percentage points).

*** In New Jersey, Christie is crushing his Dem opponent: In this year’s other gubernatorial contest -- in New Jersey -- Republican Gov. Chris Christie leads his Democratic challenger Barbara Buono by more than 30 points among registered voters, 60%-28%, according to a separate NBC/Marist poll. Strikingly, 42% of Obama voters are supporting the incumbent governor. What’s more, 69% approve of Christie’s job performance, and 82% back his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Meanwhile, 56% of registered voters approve of President Obama’s job in the state, and 46% approve of Sen. Bob Menendez’s (D-NJ) job.

*** Christie and his party, and Christie and 2016: The poll also explains why Christie is disagreeing with his national party some of the time. The GOP’s fav/unfav in the survey is 34%-59%, versus the Democratic Party’s 50%- 43% score. Yet despite Christie’s sterling numbers in this political environment, Hillary Clinton tops him in a hypothetical 2016 contest in New Jersey, 52%-41%. But Christie beats Biden by pretty much the same margin, 51%-40%. That said, 55% of registered voters in New Jersey don’t want their governor to run for president. The NBC/Marist poll of New Jersey was conducted April 28-May 2 of 1,080 registered voters, and it has margin of error of plus-minus 3.0 percentage points.

*** From Appalachian Trail to Comeback Trail: Turning from future contests to last night’s contest, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) beat Elizabeth Colbert Busch (D) in the special congressional election in South Carolina, 54%-45%.. MSNBC’s Jessica Taylor put it well: Sanford’s political career since ’09 has had plenty of ups and down -- “more ups and down than the mountains of the Appalachian Trail.” And his victory last night represented one of the ups. Interestingly, Sanford now comes to Congress owing nobody, and he has a bully pulpit at his disposal if he wants to use it. Yet the biggest takeaway from last night is that in today’s political climate, ideology trumps all. You could be a disgraced politician, and you could have been fined for breaking state ethics rules. But as long as you belong to the right political party in your state or district, you’re likely going to win. That said, Democrats are certainly trying to use this silver lining after their defeat: “House Republicans’ outreach to women voters now has Mark Sanford as the face. Republicans now have to defend him and stand with him until Election Day,” DCCC Chair Steve Israel said in a statement last night.

*** House committee holds Benghazi hearing: The final story we’re watching is today’s Benghazi hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which takes place at 11:30 am ET. The Washington Post: “Republican lawmakers, who have spent months seeking to tie President Obama to last year’s deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, are increasingly focusing their probe on a new target: former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton. The GOP-led investigation of the Sept. 11, 2012, assaults that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others now centers heavily on the State Department and whether officials there deliberately misled the public about the nature of the assault.”

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