By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - Democrat Terry McAuliffe is up 6 percentage points over Republican rival Ken Cuccinelli among voters likely to cast ballots in the Virginia gubernatorial election in November, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday.
McAuliffe, a businessman and the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, holds a 48 percent to 42 percent lead over Cuccinelli, Virginia's attorney general.
"It seems obvious that Governor Bob McDonnell's political troubles are hurting fellow Republican Cuccinelli. Guilt by association may not be fair but it sure is politically powerful," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
McDonnell, once mentioned as a GOP presidential contender in 2016, is under investigation by state and federal authorities.
They are looking into more than $150,000 in gifts and loans reportedly given to McDonnell and his family by Jonnie Williams, the CEO of Star Scientific Inc, a dietary supplement company that was seeking to do business with the state.
McDonnell, who is limited to one term, has made a public apology for the embarrassment that his actions, and those of his family, have caused the state. He also has said he has repaid the loans and has returned the tangible gifts that he and his family received from Star Scientific's CEO.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center of Politics at the University of Virginia, said the Quinnipiac poll was significant because it is the first poll to survey members of the public who are likely to vote.
"But it's August," Sabato said. "We are going to have some defining events in the fall, including the feds' decision on whether or not to indict Governor McDonnell."
He said the key to the election is voter turnout.
If Democrats can bring out voters in large numbers in an off-year election, McAuliffe likely will win, according to Sabato.
"If we have another extremely low 40 percent turnout like 2009, Cuccinelli will likely win," he said, reflecting the sentiments of other political commentators familiar with Virginia's voting patterns.
Brown of the Quinnipiac Poll said the Virginia campaign has been "light on issues and big on personalities, and it is in the area of personal characteristics that McAuliffe has a small edge."
The Quinnipiac University poll was conducted August 14 to 19 and surveyed 1,129 likely voters. The poll's margin of error is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
(Editing by Scott Malone; Editing by Nick Zieminski)