The acrimonious campaign for Virginia governor neared its end Tuesday, capping a race driven by negative ads, unrelenting accusations of dodgy behavior and a deep rancor between rivals Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli.
McAuliffe, a Democrat, ran strong among unmarried women, voters who called abortion a top issue and those who called the suburbs of Washington, D.C., home, according to preliminary results of an exit poll conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks. Cuccinelli, meanwhile, fared well among tea party backers, gun owners and among the state's rural residents.
The race was too close to call as polls closed across the state.
A third candidate, libertarian Robert Sarvis, also was on the ballot. He drew support from about 1 in 6 independent voters, according to the exit polls.
Turnout was expected to be around 40 percent of registered voters and both candidates leaned on their campaign organizations to find every last supporter.
The state Board of Elections said the number of voters submitting absentee ballots was up by one-third over 2009, suggesting Democrats' efforts to bank votes early had paid dividends.
The campaign's negative tilt turned many voters off. McAuliffe enjoyed a 10-to-1 advertising advantage over Cuccinelli during the final days.
"I really hated the negative campaigning," said Ellen Tolton, a 52-year-old grant writer. "I didn't want to vote for any of them."
About 3 in 10 voters said neither major party candidate had high ethical standards, and almost half of voters said they had reservations about their choice for governor or were casting a ballot against the other candidates, according to the exit polls.
The exit poll included interviews with 2,295 voters from 40 polling places around the state. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Just over half said Cuccinelli's positions on the issues were too conservative, and 4 in 10 called McAuliffe's too liberal.
Richard Powell, a 60-year-old retired IT manager who lives in Norfolk, described himself as an independent who frequently votes for members of both parties. He said he cast his ballot for McAuliffe, although not because he's particularly enthusiastic about him. He said he was more determined not to vote for Cuccinelli, who he said overreaches on a variety of medical issues.
Voters were barraged with a series of commercials that tied Cuccinelli to restricting abortions, and while Powell said the negative advertising "got to be sickening," abortion rights played a factor in his vote.
"I'm not in favor of abortion — let's put it that way — but I find that restricting abortion causes far more social harm than allowing abortion, so that was an issue for me," he said.
From the outset, the campaign shaped up as a barometer of voters' moods and a test of whether a swing-voting state like Virginia could elect a tea party-style governor. As one of just two races for governor nationwide, political strategists eyed the race for clues about what would work for 2014's midterm elections when control of Congress is up for grabs.
The winner will succeed term-limited Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, for a four-year term starting in January. Obama won the state in 2008 and 2012, but far fewer voters participate in off-year elections and that gives the GOP better odds.
Republicans bet a deeply conservative candidate would be their best shot, passing over a lieutenant governor for Cuccinelli, a crusader against the federal health care law. Democrats chose a loyal partisan who once led the Democratic National Committee and recruited the Clintons to raise millions for him and rally the party faithful.
The 45-year-old Cuccinelli went into Election Day trying to overcome a deficit in the polls, a crush of negative ads and a lingering wariness among fellow Republicans about his conservative views. His day took him from his home in northern Virginia south toward Richmond, where he planned to watch the results with supporters.
At a stop in Spotsylvania, he faced criticism for his position on abortion.
"I believe that it's a woman's choice," Connor Roberts, a 21-year-old McAuliffe supporter, told Cuccinelli.
The unflinching Cuccinelli responded: "We just have a fundamental disagreement."
Cuccinelli pinned his hopes on voters' frustrations with the federal health care law he attempted to foil. He tried to make the election into a referendum on the law, which McAuliffe supports.
The message was on point with voters like Carl Prendergast, 83, who along with his wife voted a straight Republican ticket.
"We just need less government, more conservative candidates," he said.
Ahead in the polls, the 56-year-old McAuliffe sought to avoid an eleventh-hour error. On Tuesday morning, McAuliffe stopped by a campaign office to rally volunteers near Richmond. He urged them to knock on one more door and phone one more friend as the campaign neared its end. McAuliffe said that effort was needed to combat low turnout.
"This is the greatest democracy in the world. We want everyone to vote," McAuliffe told reporters.
Cuccinelli also was urging people to vote.
"I hope that Virginians pay attention to substance," Cuccinelli said. "I hope the truth counts here. If it does, and if the momentum keeps going the way it does, we're going to come out on top here."
By PHILIP ELLIOTT, Associated Press
Associated Press Writer Brock Vergakis contributed to this report from Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Va. Associated Press writers Ben Nukols in Manassas and Steve Szkotak in Richmond also contributed.
Follow Philip Elliott on Twitter: http://twitter.com/philip_elliott