By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government shutdown spilled on Tuesday into the bitter governor's race in Virginia, where Republican Ken Cuccinelli hopes to avoid political damage from the federal closure powered by his allies in the conservative Tea Party movement.
Cuccinelli, a combative social conservative, and Democrat Terry McAuliffe both tried to gain an advantage on Tuesday by linking their opponent to the stalemate, although analysts said the Republican would be the most vulnerable in a prolonged shutdown.
Cuccinelli led an unsuccessful legal challenge to President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law as Virginia's attorney general, becoming a hero to Tea Party conservatives who have been the driving force in the U.S. Congress behind the shutdown.
The governor's race in politically pivotal Virginia, which backed Obama in the last two presidential elections, is the biggest U.S. political contest of 2013 and will be watched closely for clues about voter mood ahead of next year's congressional elections. Cuccinelli slightly trails McAuliffe in the polls.
Cuccinelli's Tea Party ties already have complicated his efforts to broaden his appeal to middle-of-the-road voters. Polls show voters are at least initially more likely to blame Republicans for the partial federal shutdown that vast majorities do not support.
Hundreds of thousands of federal employees were thrown out of work on Tuesday - the first day of the new fiscal year - after the Republican-controlled House of Representatives declined to pass legislation approved by the Senate to keep the government funded. House Republicans had sought to deny funding to the healthcare law as part of any bill to keep the government open.
'NOTHING BUT BAD NEWS'
"For Ken Cuccinelli, this is nothing but bad news," said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at Virginia's University of Mary Washington. "This is not his fault, but he'll be the one who pays the price for what Republicans in Congress are doing."
The struggle over government funding and Republican efforts to link it to Obama's healthcare law has a special significance in Virginia, home to tens of thousands of now-idled federal workers, a heavy military presence and many federal contractors.
A short government shutdown would probably have no effect on Cuccinelli's bid, but a long one could be painful, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said.
"There is no question a long shutdown helps McAuliffe," Sabato said. "It will make loads of northern Virginians angry and give them a reason to get out to the polls, and northern Virginia is overwhelmingly Democratic."
Cuccinelli has tried to distance himself from the efforts of congressional Republicans and said he did not support a shutdown. But he has sidestepped questions about whether he backs the effort to link the healthcare law to the budget negotiations.
He will appear along with Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a primary force behind the shutdown, at a Richmond dinner for the conservative Family Foundation on Saturday. His campaign emphasized it was not a campaign event.
Cuccinelli on Tuesday said McAuliffe sided with Democrats "who refused to bargain" over the shutdown. He also said McAuliffe had threatened a shutdown of state government unless the Republican-controlled legislature agreed to expand the Medicaid health insurance program for the poor.
"If Virginians like what they're seeing out of Washington right now, they have a candidate in Terry McAuliffe who will replicate that intransigence and failure," Cuccinelli said in a statement.
McAuliffe said in a debate last week that he would not shut down the government over the Medicaid issue.
On Tuesday, he accused Cuccinelli of trying to appease his conservative base and refusing to stand up to "radical Republicans" who pushed an ideological agenda.
"He is more closely aligned with the extreme faction of his party than mainstream Virginians," McAuliffe, a former national Democratic party chairman and close ally of former President Bill Clinton, said in a statement.
Polls show neither Cuccinelli nor McAuliffe are particularly popular with voters after a campaign fueled by heavy spending on attack ads. Cuccinelli has taken the biggest hit, with more likely voters viewing him unfavorably than favorably in recent polls.
Cuccinelli, who led the race in the spring, now trails McAuliffe by small but solid margins, fueled by a big gender gap - women prefer McAuliffe by double digits, recent polls show.
(Editing by Karey Van Hall and Will Dunham)